In the wake of the deadly riot at Mississippi State Prison at Parchman in January 2020, the philanthropic arm of Jay-Z and Yo Gotti’s company ROC Nation hired a team of lawyers, dubbed Team Roc, to represent 33 prisoners in a lawsuit that alleges conditions at the prison are unconstitutional.
Six experts, including doctors, a building inspector and water analysis, hired by Team Roc spent multiple days in February 2020 at Parchman. They interviewed the 33 named plaintiffs and inspected living quarters. They documented understaffing, spoiled food, lack of medical care, and “heart wrenching conditions.”
The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) refused to allow the experts to interview prisoners other than the named plaintiffs. Nonetheless, the prisoners tried to communicate with them. “Prisoners mimed or whispered such things to us as, ‘Help us, please.’ ‘Thank you,’ and ‘Appreciate it,’“ one expert wrote. “… It was clear the prisoners in these zones were suffering.”
The experts found that food served to prisoners was often spoiled, undercooked or covered in insect or rat feces. Some prisoners reported going for days without being served a meal. In February, a prisoner strapped a rope around his neck and laid down in his cell to call attention to his plight.
“I wasn’t trying to kill myself,” the 37-year-old prisoner told a doctor. “I was trying to get the [guard’s] attention because I haven’t had any food to eat in four days, and I have lost 30-40 pounds.”
The experts found the water that prisoners drink is brown and foul-smelling. The housing units that lack air conditioning were covered in mold, filth and had rain leaking through the ceiling. Some cells lacked running water, forcing prisoners to urinate or defecate in plastic bags. Prisoners reported that guards often failed to take them to their medical appointments unless they paid an unofficial transport fee of $35 to $150.
In one case, two prisoners stabbed each other in their cell. Guards took one prisoner to medical, but left the other in his cell despite the fact he was bleeding. When they returned three hours later, the prisoner was dead. Prisoners said guards often did not come on the wing for days at a time.
To get the attention of guards, prisoners often set fires. “We look at fire like SOS,” one prisoner told an attorney. “They look at it like we trying to be violent, but we just really be trying to get help.”
“I could see remnants of fire, charring everywhere,” Stern wrote in his report. “It was the worst prison I’ve ever been to in the United States . . . It was heart wrenching that people live in that environment day in and day out.” (See PLN, July 2020, p. 1.)
Parchman “is simply not the same prison it was earlier this year,” MDOC said in court documents. “Most of the conditions observed by Plaintiffs in February were caused in large part by an extraordinary, deadly gang disruption in late December 2019 and January 2020. Since that time … conditions at MSP have drastically improved, and the conditions will continue to improve under current Mississippi Department of Corrections leadership.”
In June 2020, Burl Cain, the longtime warden at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, was hired as MDOC’s commissioner. Cain was forced to retire after an investigation into misappropriation of funds. PLN has also previously reported on the deplorable conditions at Parchman, which resulted in the closing of Unit 32. (See PLN, February 2011, p. 22.)
MDOC blames prisoners for the conditions that exist at Parchman. Eldon Vail, an expert on prison conditions, takes exception to MDOC’s failure to take responsibility.
“The prisoners did not create short staffing so their basic needs could not be met. The prisoners did not allow for the absence of hot water necessary to get their bodies clean,” said Vail. “The prisoners did not decide to not provide laundry service so they have to wash their clothes in the toilet or sink, one of which is often broken or in disrepair … It is not the prisoners’ fault and making that claim makes me doubt the capacity of MDOC’s administration to correct this very dangerous situation.”
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