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Mississippi Prison Deaths Spike for Second Year; Disturbing Photos Revealed

by Matt Clarke & David M. Reutter

In July 2019, seven prisoners died in facilities operated by the Mississippi Department of Corrections (DOC). The deaths followed a similar spate in August 2018, when 16 deaths occurred at the DOC’s three state prisons. Media coverage of the most recent deaths was bolstered by the release of photos and videos on social media in the spring of 2019 that showed unsafe conditions, understaffing, violence and the presence of weapons inside two DOC facilities.

The images – reportedly filmed at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (MSP) in Parchman and South Mississippi Correctional Institution (SMCI) in Leakesville – sparked a May 2019 letter of complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division from the nonprofit advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).

“We’ve heard about Parchman over the years,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring, “but it’s only been in the last few weeks that we started to get more clips, videos, and messages from people inside.”

State health officials are required by law to conduct annual inspections at MSP. The inspections conducted between June 3 and 7, 2019 found hundreds of environmental and sanitation deficiencies at the prison, including more than 400 cells with flooding and leaks, broken plumbing fixtures, lack of lights, and missing mattresses and pillows. There was also exposed wiring, standing raw sewage, black mold and mildew, as well as inoperable showers and ice machines.

A review by Mississippi Today found that health inspectors had cited the same or similar deficiencies in reports going back to 2016. Prison officials insisted they had fixed previously noted flaws. Jim Craig, senior deputy and director of the Office of Health Protection, said that in some cases, prisoners damaged or destroyed fixtures that had been repaired. Health officials have no enforcement power and can only submit a report to the governor.

Some of the images posted to social media by former MSP prisoner Kelvin Sanders were taken at the facility and smuggled out when he was released in January 2019, he said. Sanders has since left the state, but not before allegedly receiving a threatening phone call promising retaliation for publishing the materials.

The photos and video taken at SMCI were shared with and posted by Lakeshia Payton, whose fiancé is currently housed at the prison. She said she cried when she saw them.

“I couldn’t even look at that,” Payton said of one video showing moldy shower areas.

The images from the two state prisons “depict showers with peeling walls and stained floors; sparse food trays; emaciated men slumped over their bunks and lying on mattresses on the floor,” Mississippi Today reported. The photos and videos were spread to a wider online audience by Carol Leonard, a prisoner advocate based in Tennessee who acknowledged the danger of using a contraband cell phone to make the recordings.

“The guys take a huge risk in leaking this stuff,” she said.

Mississippi DOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall requested $22.3 million from state lawmakers for fiscal year 2020 just to repair Unit 29 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. The amount needed to repair all the deficiencies at the prison was not available. Her request was rejected.

“If they don’t maintain these buildings, it will cut the life of the buildings in half,” noted attorney Ron Welch, who represented prisoners in a 1970s class-action suit challenging conditions in Mississippi state prisons.

As for the prisoners, “the implications of long-term exposure to unhealthy and dangerous conditions are not a mystery,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s office in Mississippi.

“People are sick,” he continued. “People are dying in our prisons. People are in need of services that they don’t receive, and we hear weekly that there aren’t enough people at [the DOC] to remedy the situation.”

With 48 percent of its guard positions vacant, SMCI was on lockdown for at least seven months in 2019. The 404 guards it needs are part of a group of at least 500 that the DOC is trying to hire. But with a starting salary of $24,903 per year – $26,148 with a college degree or prior prison experience – there are few takers to replace departing experienced staff like former SMCI guard Wallace Carpenter. The 12-year veteran survived a 2007 attack by prisoners, only to quit in 2015 as staff dwindled and violence increased.

“I didn’t feel like pressing my luck,” he said.

The understaffing and lack of experienced guards has resulted in security lapses at DOC facilities.

In July 2018, Greene County Herald publisher Russell Turner went to his Leakesville home and found a man sitting on his porch. The man asked for a ride to a hospital, which Turner gave him, only to find out later that he was convicted murderer Michael F. Wilson. The 47-year-old had escaped from SMCI several hours before, but no alert had been issued because the understaffed prison hadn’t noticed.

One year later, a pair of prisoners escaped from the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF) and remained at large for six days before being captured some 90 miles away. That same month, in July 2019, an MSP prisoner with two other escapes on his record broke out again. He was caught the next day.

DOC policy requires guards to regularly count prisoners, but internal memos indicated that some of those counts may have been falsified by overworked staff.

“A convicted murderer, serving a life sentence, strolled out of a state prison in broad daylight and was on the run for quite some time before anyone was looking for him,” Turner wrote in the Herald after Wilson was recaptured. “That is the issue we need to be discussing and pushing state and local officials to address.”

Meanwhile, six prisoners died at MSP and a seventh at CMCF in the first 16 days of July 2019. Prisoners Lance Hagan and Kenneth Brown died at MSP on July 6 and 9, respectively; Jeffery Allen and Keith Bogan on July 10; Joseph Groff on July 13; and Howard Goodin on July 16. The death of prisoner Veronica Boatman at CMCF was the only homicide. A DOC database indicated 21 state prisoners died between January and early May 2019.

Goodin, 41, was convicted of capital murder and armed robbery in 1999. He had been removed from death row after being found mentally disabled. Groff, 43, was convicted of capital murder and arson in 2005. His state appeals were postponed while he underwent mental health treatment after having been found incompetent to stand trial.

The DOC experienced a similar spike in prisoner deaths in August 2018, when 16 prisoners died at SMCI, MSP and CMCF.

Families of the deceased prisoners said no provisions were made for visitation or phone calls, and no medical condition updates were provided before their deaths. Most heard from a chaplain associated with the prison just before or after their incarcerated family member died. DOC officials promised transparency and called for a federal investigation of the deaths in 2018.

When the number of fatalities hit 12, Commissioner Hall said that number was “not out of line with the number of deaths from previous months.” However, federal statistics indicate otherwise.

Between 2001 and 2014, the DOC averaged 51 prisoner deaths per year, a rate 27 percent higher than the national average during the same time period. Over a six-month period from November 2015 through May 2016, 18 prisoners died at MSP alone. [See: PLN, July 2016, p.28].

Johnson, with the MacArthur Justice Center, said the state should be held responsible for the deaths – even those that were allegedly due to natural causes, which in some cases involved inadequate medical care or neglect.

“My experience representing Mississippi inmates tells me that these deaths were not ‘natural’ at all. I believe they are the result of long-term malnourishment, lack of adequate health care services, and exposure to conditions that take a terrible toll on the body,” he said in an email. “Mississippi’s leaders pay no political price whatsoever for abhorrent conditions or inmate deaths.” 

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Sources: Mississippi Today, Clarion Ledger, postandcourier.com, nbcnews.com, www.mdoc.ms.gov