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Class-action Certified in Challenge to Treatment of Mentally Ill Mississippi Prisoners

In September 2015, a Mississippi federal district court certified as a class-action a lawsuit challenging the treatment and conditions afforded mentally ill prisoners at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF). The court further held that the plaintiffs’ mental health experts could testify as to the methodologies used to formulate their opinions.

The seven claims raised in the civil rights action seek to “eliminate the substantial risks of serious harm” that result from alleged inadequate medical and mental health care, unsanitary environmental conditions, use of excessive force by EMCF staff and use of solitary confinement. [See: PLN, Jan. 2014, p.24]. The facility is operated by private prison firm Management & Training Corp.; it was previously operated by GEO Group before the company discontinued its contracts in Mississippi in 2012. [See: PLN, Nov. 2013, p.30].

The defendants moved under Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharms., 509 U.S. 579 (1993) to exclude the expert reports and testimony of the plaintiffs’ medical and mental health experts, Dr. Terry A. Kupers, Dr. Marc Stern, Dr. Bart Abplanalp and Nurse Practitioner Madeline LaMarre. Under Daubert, an expert’s opinion must be assessed to determine “whether the reasoning or methodology underlying the testimony is scientifically valid.” To be admissible, an “expert’s testimony must be reliable at each and every step.”

The challenge by the defendants was to the experts’ methodologies applied to formulate their opinions. The district court wrote that while the “Defendants have shown that the qualitative methodologies used by Plaintiffs’ experts raise questions regarding bias, and whether it is scientifically permissible to make inferences as to the whole EMCF prisoner population based on selective sampling of medical records of only a few inmates, the Court finds these issues go more to the credibility of the expert opinions as opposed to undermining the methodologies used by Plaintiffs’ experts in formulating those opinions.”

The district court then turned to the plaintiffs’ motion to certify the case as a class-action. The court granted the motion after finding the plaintiffs met all the requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 23, and created a class comprised of all EMCF prisoners and three subclasses: the Isolation subclass, the Mental Health subclass, and the Units 5 and 6 subclass.

The case remains pending, with the parties engaging in discovery and a bench trial scheduled to begin in July 2017. The class members are represented by attorneys with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the law firm of Covington & Burling, LLP, as well as attorneys Elizabeth Alexander and Mari K. Bonthuis. See: Dockery v. Fischer, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 3:13-cv-00326-TSL-JCG; 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135853. 

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Related legal case

Dockery v. Fischer