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Rappers Jay-Z and Yo Gatti Help Prisoners in Mississippi Sue State Over “Inhumane and Unconstitutional Conditions”

Lawyers representing music stars Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Mario “Yo Gotti” Mims, along with Carter’s entertainment company, Team Roc, filed a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Mississippi on January 14, 2020, on behalf of 24 prisoners held at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. The suit’s named defendants are then-Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) Commissioner Felicia Hall and Marshal Turner, superintendent of the Parchman prison until April 2020.

The suit was filed by Blackmon & Blackmon of Canton and Alex Spiro and colleagues from Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in New York. Prior to filing, Team Roc sent a letter to Hall and then-Gov. Phil Bryant accusing MDOC of operating prisons that are “inhumane and unconstitutional.” Bryant’s term ended in January 2020 when his former lieutenant governor Tate Reeves, was inaugurated.

Spiro said the group was ‘‘prepared to pursue all potential avenues to obtain relief for the people living in Mississippi’s prisons and their families,” and concluded the letter with a warning: “Roc Nation and its philanthropic arm, Team Roc, demand that Mississippi take immediate steps to remedy this intolerable situation.”

Since December 29, 2019, at least 30 men have died in Mississippi prisons, most at Parchman. The letter to Bryant and Hall, in addition to mentioning lockdowns, general violence and a severe staffing shortage, also notes that inmates “are forced to live in squalor, with rats that crawl over them as they sleep on the floor, having been denied even a mattress or a cot.”

“These deaths are a direct result of Mississippi’s utter disregard for the people it has incarcerated and their constitutional rights,” said the lawsuit.

Rukia Lumumba, founder of the People’s Advocacy Institute, elaborated:

“People are at their breaking point, the conditions are so horrific inside, that the conditions have caused the violence. If people are forced to live in cages that are put in place to break a person, then escalation can’t be too far behind.”

“I just think it’s troubling where you have people, predominantly African-Americans, who are locked inside cages where they don’t have a voice to be heard — and are essentially the forgotten,” Spiro said. “It strikes us that there has to be a spotlight on this, otherwise we might not even be scratching the surface of the horror going on inside these prisons.”

The lawsuit names prisoners who died in January 2020, including:

Walter Gates, an inmate of Unit 29E at Parchman, was stabbed multiple times on New Year’s Eve, and declared dead just after midnight.

Roosevelt Holliman, who was stabbed to death during a fight the next day.

Denorris Howell, a prisoner at Unit 29 at Parchman, was allegedly strangled to death by his cellmate on January 3.

State Rep. Robert Johnson and other Democratic lawmakers visited Parchman on January 10, 2020. They witnessed broken toilets full of waste and leaking ceilings. Referring to the prison’s understaffing as “a recipe for disaster,” he said that no one wanted “to make prison a country club.”

“But there’s basic and requisite standards to exist as a human being,” Johnson continued. “And I don’t think we’re meeting those — not for employees, not for inmates.”

Prisoner rights advocates have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the MDOC, alleging that state leaders are “deliberately and systematically” putting prisoners at risk.

The lawsuit alleges that prisoners’ “lives are in peril” due in part to lack of adequate funding for the state’s prisons and the resulting understaffing. See: Amos v. Hall, USDC (N.D. Miss.), Case No. 4:20-cv-00007.

The stars and their attorneys filed a second suit on February 26, 2020, on behalf of another 152 Parchman prisoners. About half are held in the prison’s Unit 29, which was the subject of a June 2019 report to Gov. Bryant from Rayford Horton, environmental administrator of the state health department. The new suit names as its lead defendant Hall’s replacement, MDOC Interim Commissioner Tommy Taylor. See: Lang v. Taylor, USDC (N.D. Miss.), Case No. 4:20-cv-00030-DMB-RP.

Gov. Reeves visited Unit 29 his first month in office and called the conditions he found there “infuriating.” He has vowed to shut down that part of the penitentiary.

“Were these conditions in existence at an animal shelter,” the suit claims, “media would swarm, arrests would be made, and those in charge would be on their way to jail as a result of public outrage over this criminal conduct.”

“We can do better,” the governor agreed.