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Mississippi Prisons in Crisis

Prisons beset with gang-related violence, overcrowding, understaffing and weak funding.

Between late last year and early April 2020, more than 30 Mississippi prisoners died due togang violence, suicide or illness – over 10 times the average of 3.4 prisoner deaths per year between 2014 and 2018. Prisoner advocates blame budget cutting and mass incarceration policies that have left state prisons overcrowded, deteriorated and understaffed.

Dozen of reports by news organizations cast a pall on the state prison system.

The chaos within the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) began on December 29, 2019, after a conflict erupted between the Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples. It escalated into what officials called a “gang war” after South Mississippi Correctional Institution (SMCI) prisoner Terrandance Dobbins, a Gangster Disciples member, was killed and two others were injured.

According to officials, prisoners used cellphones to spread news of the war. Soon after, the riot at SMCI spread to Mississippi State Prison at Parchman and other prisons. Parchman, despite lock downs, was the scene of five murders and two other deaths in 30 days.

“They ran the guards out of the building last night,” a Parchman prisoner wrote about the all-night gang battles he witnessed on New Year’s Day 2020. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. They’re short on staff. They were banging all night. Don’t list my name. You’ll get me killed.”

The violence was a setback from improvements made during 40 years of federal oversight after a lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which resulted in the closure of Parchman’s Unit 32 in 2010. [See PLN, February 2011, p. 22.]

“The people of Mississippi should not think that their prisons have been converted to ‘country clubs.’ They are prisons where no citizen wishes to be incarcerated,” wrote federal Magistrate Judge Jerry Davis in 2011 when ordering an end to the confinement conditions that spawned the class action lawsuit. “However, they are humane and do not systematically subject the inmates to ‘cruel and inhuman punishment.’ That is the mandate of the Constitution and why this court has been involved all these years.”

Former MDOC Commissioner Christopher Epps reduced solitary confinement systemwide as a result of the lawsuit, and MDOC was hailed as a model of prison reform. Mississippi legislators in 2013 created a bipartisan Corrections and Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force. Tasked with reversing a 300 percent growth in the prison population over the previous three decades, its policy recommendations included saving taxpayers millions of dollars by reducing recidivism. President Trump cited the state’s 2014 job training and rehabilitation initiatives as the model for federal prison reform legislation.

MDOC’s budget grew from $312 million in fiscal year 2011 to $359.7 million in 2015. But as the state moved on from four decades of federal oversight of its prison system, lawmakers began tightening the purse. Funding for MDOC was reduced to $334.6 million in 2018 and $344 million in 2019.

A joint investigation by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting (MCIR) and ProPublica reported in 2019 that millions of dollars that were to be reinvested in reentry programming were used for corporate tax breaks instead. “Meanwhile, the number of prisoners is creeping back up, and the lack of funding and staff is contributing to worsening conditions,” they reported.

In 2018, then-MDOC Commissioner Patricia Hall addressed lawmakers to request an additional $22 million to repair Parchman’s Unit 29 and to raise pay for guards. In reply, House Speaker Phillip Gunn (R-Hattiesburg) told Hall: “I can’t just go in there and ask the House to fund that kind of money in an election year. Can’t you just lock ‘em down?”

Also in 2018, then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves – who is now the governor – toured SMCI. Guards told him about dangerous conditions, understaffing due to low pay, and increased gang activity due to inadequate staff. Reeves barely responded to the concerns before leaving.

MDOC officials requested $78 million in additional funding for FY 2021. Nearly a third of that was to renovate Unit 29, which MDOC describes as “unsafe for staff and inmates.” Another $50 million was earmarked for guard pay raises. But Gov. Reeves asked lawmakers to leave MDOC’s budget the same despite past cuts and his vow that guards be “compensated fairly.”

His budget request conceded that “more investment” in MDOC may be necessary in the future, but he added that “we do not want to blindly request an increase to achieve a vague ambition. We want to ask for targeted investment.”

Reeves also asked the state Department of Finance and Administration to analyze MDOC spending to “accurately determine where taxpayers’ money is currently being spent (or misspent).”

He was not alone among state politicians who opposed adding money to the prison budget. In fact, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee proposed cutting MDOC’s budget by $8.3 million.

A pay raise for guards “doesn’t necessarily fix everything,” insisted Juan Barnett, the Democratic chair of the state Senate Corrections Committee. “We need to take our time and make sure we address all the issues as carefully as possible.”

As Gov. Reeves placed blame for MDOC’s problems on past administrations (of which he was also a part), he declared, “We know there are problems in the system. We don’t want to hide them. We want to fix them.”

Gangs Fill Understaffing Void

In recent years, gangs have become more and more prevalent inside prisons. Some prisoners were gang members before they entered prison. Others joined to gain a feeling of belonging while others did so for protection.

There are a few things gangs have in common. Blood in, blood out is a common refrain, meaning it is necessary to engage in violence in order to get into a gang, and denouncing membership will also result in a violent encounter. Another commonality is that gangs seek to bring in revenue by engaging in criminality. Prisoners often feel they are left little choice but to join a gang.

“Most of the prison population is affiliated now,” one Mississippi inmate said, “or else they’re victims.”

This victimization often involves extortion. The gig involves finding a loner, or someone who lacks gang affiliation. Threats of violence are made and carried out if the prisoner or a family member doesn’t pay for protection. Calls are often made directly to family members. Then, there are scams that involve identity theft and drug dealing inside and outside of prisons.

Competition for a piece of the small pie inside of prisons can be fierce. Stepping onto another gang’s turf or straight up beefs among rival members can result in violence. These are normal routines inside of most prisons, but guards usually have their network of snitches to keep them abreast of things.

What happens when guards are on gang payrolls or collaborating with them, or there are too few guards to maintain control of an area? What has played out in Mississippi’s prisons provides an answer.

Gangs have taken control over beds, wall phones, and showers, charging a fee to use them. Prisoners who want to sleep in the bed assigned by guards are “breaking security” and must pay for the privilege. Eating without sharing or showering at the wrong time results in gang-instituted fines. These debts are paid with money, food, tasks such as carrying contraband for the gang, or even online currency like Green Dots.

Low guard pay is perhaps the biggest impediment to adequate staffing. Pay for Mississippi guards is the lowest in the nation, and a guard with a family of three qualifies for food stamps.

“The number of officers has continued to dwindle as the agency’s pay has not kept pace with industry salaries and other professions,” MDOC said in a news release announcing its desire to raise guard pay from $25,650 to $30,370.

That’s significantly less than the pay for a manager at a Hardee’s in Mississippi, which starts at $36,000 a year. But it would put the state’s guard pay in line with its four neighboring states: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee.

Low pay has left MDOC with 800 vacant guard positions. According to the state Personnel Board, MDOC had 1,591 guards in 2014, a number which had shrunk to 732 by December 2019. As of July 1, 2019, Parchman had one guard for every 11 prisoners. At Central Mississippi Correctional Facility there was one guard for every 17 prisoners. At SMCI, the ratio was one to 23. The federal Bureau of Prisons, on average, has a prisoner-to-guard ratio of just 9.3. Arkansas has one guard for every 6.6 prisoners and Louisiana has a 1-to-5.2 ratio.

“This is not a sustainable situation,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, who called SMCI’s guard to prisoner ratio “among the highest I’ve ever seen.”

The result is that guards “let inmates run the facility,” said Keneshia Lee, whose brother was attacked in a state prison. When she questioned a guard afterward, she said he acknowledged that he and his coworkers were “scared for their lives.”

State Rep. Jay Hughes (D-Oxford) toured SMCI in April 2019, when he said a prison counselor told him that she didn’t feel safe. A high-ranking prison official corrected her, saying, “It’s not that you didn’t feel safe. You aren’t safe.” The same official said that gangs were running the prison.

Through spokeswoman Grace Fisher, MDOC replied that it “denies alleged statements that gangs run SMCI or any other prison. Such an assertion contradicts the public safety mission of the agency.”

But the warden at Wilkinson County Correctional Facility (WCCF), a Mississippi prison operated by Management and Training Corporation (MTC), agreed with the SMCI official. The Marshall Project reported a December 2018 internal audit at WCCF found then-Warden Jody Bradley allegedly told gang leaders to “control their men.” Failure to do so, he warned, would result in the entire prison being placed on lockdown. The audit quoted Bradley as saying, “Using gangs in this way is just how Mississippi prisons operate. It ain’t right, but it’s the truth.” MTC denied that gangs were in control.

“That is in no way is the reality at the prison,” insisted Issa Arnita, MTC’s director of corporate communications.

The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting found similar allegations were made at MTC-operated East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF), where a lawsuit claims MTC officials “depend on the gangs to run the facility.”

“The risk of harm created by gang and prisoner control over EMCF has manifested many times in assaults and extortion,” the suit claims.

Explosion of Violence

In January 2019 Hall warned legislators that a “staffing crisis” and “a pressure cooker type situation” was brewing at MDOC facilities.

“We’re asking them to come to work in dangerous-type environments doing dangerous work,” Hall said.

Many rejected working for such low pay and some who do supplement their pay by trafficking contraband. Jordan, a Mississippi prisoner said: “Man, it’s way bigger than gangs. It’s the administration. The administration in these prisons is the biggest gang . . . Some guards they come in here, they’re already affiliated with gangs.”

“I don’t feel safe due to the administrative staff,” agreed Charles, a prisoner at Parchman’s Unit 29. “They were known to give keys to inmates and let them come in on certain (other) inmates and stab and kill them.”

But for guards, allowing gangs to take control is the safer and more lucrative option. Moving contraband, such as cellphones, drugs, and tobacco, into the prison can generously increase their poverty-level pay.

“Certain players in the game are racking up mid-six figures. Numerous soldiers and guards are bringing in $100,000 to $200,000, easy,” said a former top gang leader in Mississippi’s prisons, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. “This is now on an organized level of racketeering.”

It was in this setting that the December 29, 2019 riot at SMCI spilled over to other Mississippi prisons. MDOC ordered a systemwide lockdown to quell the violence. Its next response was to reopen Parchman’s Unit 32, loading prisoners onto vans and transporting them there. After a decade of being closed, the facility drew prisoner complaints of standing water, mildew and mold, a lack of running water for sinks and toilets, and paint peeling off the walls.

A prisoner named Jordan shared cellphone video of sewage flowing through his cell after he was transferred to Unit 32.

“We walked around for nine days with raw sewage up to our ankles,” he said. “They used a squeegee . . . (to push) the water out of our cells over into the shower area. We begged them for bleach . . . so we could clean ourselves. We didn’t receive cleaning supplies, but the toilets continued that night - they started overflowing.”

Since 2017, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has cited Parchman’s sewage system for violations. Since 2012, it has also been cited for nearly 100 violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. In 2019, inspectors found at least 300 cells lacked power or lights, and more than 250 prisoners – 8% of the population – lacked bedding or mattresses.

The reports also documented holes in cell walls and prison doors, collapsing ceilings, broken toilets, sinks, drains and tile, exposed wiring, bird nests in windows, and vermin infestation.

While MDOC knew of these conditions at Parchman, and that things were even worse at the long-closed Unit 32, it nevertheless moved dozens of prisoners there. Parchman’s Unit 32 was ill equipped and unprepared to house prisoners in January 2020. Guards even failed to ensure that a back door was locked. Two prisoners escaped but were later recaptured. Despite the fact the prison was in lockdown status, violence and death ensued over the following weeks:

• January 1, 2020: Walter Gates, 25, died after being stabbed to multiple times on New Year’s Eve.

• January 2, 2020: Roosevelt Holliman, 32, was stabbed to death in what the coroner called a “gang fight.”

• January 3, 2020: Denorris Howell, 36, was reportedly strangled to death by his cellmate in what appeared to be a gang killing. In a video, other prisoners can be heard cheering on Howell’s murder.

• January 8, 2020: Prisoner A.D. Mills, 42, died of “natural causes” at a hospital.

• January 18, 2020: Gabriel Carmen, 31, was found hanging in his cell.

• January 21, 2020: James Talley, 36, and Timothy Hudspeth, 35, died of blunt force beating injuries following an altercation with other prisoners.

• January 22, 2020: Thomas Lee, 49, was found dead in his cell from what was labelled “an apparent suicide.”

• January 26, 2020: Joshua Norman, 26, was found hanging in his Unit 29 cell.

Conditions were long rough at Parchman’s Unit 29 and it had been placed on lockdown on December 2, 2019. Atlanta lawyer Vanessa Carroll visited the prison in late January 2020, finding the lockdown was still in place, and that for nearly two months prisoners had not been given yard call. They hadn’t been afforded showers since December 28. The smell in the unit was “unbearable,” Carroll said, and “the lack of water and access to showers” was “making it impossible for the men to maintain basic hygiene.”

“One client has sores and a rash spreading over his abdomen that is likely a direct result of the unsanitary conditions,” the lawyer added.

After touring Parchman in late January 2020, Gov. Reeves blamed prisoners for “99%” of the problems. He was not alone in that assessment. Before he left office in early January, then-Gov. Phil Bryant told reporters:

“Someone asked earlier ‘Who’s responsible for what’s happening at Parchman?’ The inmates. The inmates are the ones that take each others’ lives. The inmates are the ones that fashion weapons out of metal. The inmates are the ones that do damage to the very rooms they’re living in.”

Plantation Mentality

In the late 19th century, Mississippi was a rigid apartheid state that dished out cruel, gratuitous punishment to those it deemed criminals. Blacks bore the brunt, and they were arrested for petty crimes like gambling and vagrancy, which was defined as traveling without a permit or evidence of a job. Offenders were given hefty fines and sentences. Once in custody, the state then leased them to private companies to labor on railroads and plantations.

“The pride of Mississippi…is the ‘Parchman Place,’” a 1911 New York Times Sunday edition article read. “Actually instances have been known of when negros were turned out of the penitentiary, given a new suit and $10 in money, they would not want to leave and would inquire if there was some way in which they could stay there.”

The reality, however, was far different.

“The prisoners ate and slept on bare ground, without blankets or mattresses, and often without clothes,” wrote historian David Oshinsky in Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. “Convicts dropped from exhaustion, pneumonia, malaria, frostbite, consumption, sunstroke, dysentery, gunshot wounds, and ‘shackle poisoning’ (the constant rubbing of chains and leg irons against bare flesh).”

For the next 70 years, conditions remained little changed at Parchman. Those changes that did occur included the building of a maximum-security unit, a gas chamber and a solitary confinement wing. Then, in 1974, a federal court in the landmark prison conditions case of Gates v. Collier ruled in the prisoners’ favor and ordered the prison to desegregate, eliminate “Black Annie” (punishment by whip) and other unconstitutional forms of punishment, as well as ending forced field labor.

For the next 40 years, the court maintained oversight, ordering reforms such as the closing of Unit 32, which housed death row and “supermax” high-security-risk prisoners.

Notwithstanding Parchman’s history, Mississippi continues to publicly brag about its prisons. The state offers carefully orchestrated tours to schools, church groups, and the media, according to an account in The Intercept. As the tour bus passes prisoners working in the fields tending squash, broccoli and greens, the tourists are told the world addresses “inmate idleness.” The visitors’ center sports rocking chairs and vases filled with fake flowers. A hearty lunch consisting of grilled shrimp, teriyaki green beans, and pecan cobbler is offered to tourists, though not in the prisoner chow hall. While society continues to evolve, the rhetoric and reality of Parchman and Mississippi’s prison system have changed little from 1911. One prisoner tried to set the record straight for a group of tourists.

“There is no rehabilitation in Mississippi,” the Parchman lifer, who had served 40 years, told a tour group that included a journalist. “Don’t kid yourself.”

He noted that in the decades he had been at Parchman, sentences had gotten longer and programs had been stripped away. There used to be a choir, a radio station, and a print shop.

“All that’s gone,” he said.

Visitation has been curtailed and conjugal visits were eliminated. But then, those sentenced to prison time know not to expect much from officials. Survival has always been the nature of the prison game.

“Prison has always been violent,” said Al Coleman, who served time at Parchman in the 1990s. “It’s like walking into a zone with a bunch of time bombs waiting to explode . . . If you’re being treated like you’re nothing, like you’re a dog, an animal, and you’re not getting the right amount of food, water, you don’t have no way to use the restroom, the frustration constantly builds.”

Promised action

“Fix Your Prisons” read a T-shirt worn by Sally House at a January 11, 2020, protest outside Parchman. Protesters at a rally at the state Capitol yelled, “SHUT IT DOWN!”

The protest was fueled by pictures of conditions inside Unit 32, after prison officials reopened it in December 2019 in an attempt to break up “gang wars” that followed Terrandance Dobbins’ murder.

Using cellphones, prisoners sent pictures of the squalid conditions that were forced upon them. One of them showed five prisoners in striped jumpsuits lying on the floor of their filthy cell.

“I wanna thank those brothers behind the walls that had the courage to let the world know of the injustices,” said prison reform activist Sharon Brown. “To let the world know that they are beaten, broken, tired.”

In the wake of the violence, however, one legislative bill sought to allow sentences of up to 15 years for possession of a cellphone in a jail or prison.

“This proposal is just another attempt by the state of Mississippi to avoid accountability for its failing corrections system,” said Scott Roberts, senior director of Criminal Justice Campaigns at Color of Change. “Without cellphone images and video, we might never have known the extent of the crisis at Parchman and other facilities.”

In his first State of the State address, Gov. Reeves promised action in response to the rash of violence and deaths that engulfed the state’s prisons.

“I have instructed (MDOC) to begin the necessary work to start closing Parchman’s most notorious unit, Unit 29,” he said. “I’ve seen enough. We must turn the page.”

On January 23, 2020, Reeves toured the privately operated Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, for which taxpayers still owe $97 million issued in construction bonds. It was shuttered in 2016 following several violent outbreaks. The governor proposed reopening the prison and moving Parchman prisoners into it. But that proposal, said a former guard at Walnut Grove, is not a viable solution.

“Parchman is a management problem. Relocating to Walnut Grove will not solve the problem,” said former corrections worker Gwendolyn Barton Reid. “Where are they going to find the type of staff they need to manage those types of inmates?”

With few options in its own run-down prison system, Mississippi turned to a more profitable option: privatized prisons. Citing an emergency situation – the lack of staff to ensure prisoners’ safety – MDOC inked a $2 million contract with Tennessee-based CoreCivic to house 375 close custody prisoners at the company’s Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler.

The $53.72 daily cost to house a Mississippi prisoner in an MDOC facility includes $10.28 per day for medical costs. The no-bid, 90-day contract paid CoreCivic $59.26 per prisoner per day if the maximum of 375 prisoners was maintained. MDOC must also pay for any off-site medical costs that exceed $2,500 per instance, and CoreCivic is not responsible for costs for treating AIDS, HIV or Hepatitis C, meaning the price tag could balloon even more.

In mid-January 2020, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson signed a letter that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sent to the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) requesting it to open an investigation into conditions in Mississippi’s prisons. DOJ announced on February 6, 2020, that it would investigate conditions at four Mississippi prisons, including Parchman.

“The investigation will focus on whether [MDOC] adequately protects prisoners from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners at the four prisons, as well as whether there is adequate suicide prevention, including adequate mental health care and appropriate use of isolation, at Parchman,” a DOJ statement said.

Gov. Reeves’ office tried to paint the development in a positive light, with spokesperson Renae Eze expressing gratitude “that President Trump’s administration has taken a focused interest in criminal justice reform and that they care enough about Mississippi to engage in this critical issue.”

“As we continue our own investigations, we look forward to cooperating with them and working together to right the ship,” Eze added.

But prisoner advocates say Mississippi must acknowledge the core issues that led to its prisons imploding.

“Mississippi has a mass incarceration problem,” said Josh Tom, interim director of the Mississippi ACLU. “Dramatic increases in imprisonment over the last 40 years have brought prisons and jails across the state to the breaking point. Changes in law and policy, not crime rates, explain most of this increase.”

However, there are serious grounds for concern about the likelihood of Mississippi reforming its notorious prisons. On May 22, 2020, Gov. Reeves announced that the former warden of the state penitentiary in Angola, Burl Cain, was his nominee to take over MDOC. Cain, who turns 78 in July 2020, and who was subsequently confirmed, gained notoriety during his 21-year stint at Angola for pushing an unabashedly evangelical Christian agenda on prisoners, regardless of their personal religious beliefs, as well as a fondness for harsh punishment, especially solitary confinement.

Cain resigned from his position in 2015 after reports surfaced of a land deal involving associates of two Angola prisoners. A 2017 state auditor’s report also accused him of using prisoner labor at his private residence. However, no charges were ever brought against him. “Those allegations were unfounded, that there were no crimes committed,” Cain said.

In addition to his bias against Catholics, Muslims, Jews and anyone else who isn’t a Southern Baptist like he is, Cain is on record voicing racist warnings about Asian-Americans taking over the state workforce because “they make real good grades.” 

Sources: meridianstar.com, theintercept.com, nytimes.com, nymag.com, clarionledger.com, mississippicir.com, phillytrib.com, wjtv.com, jacksonfreepress.com, motherjones.com, apnews.com, usatoday.com, cnn.com, wlox.com, npr.org, abcnews.com, cbsnews.com, pbs.org, mdoc.ms.gov, mississippifreepress.org, magnoliastatelive.com