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DOJ Finds Unconstitutional Conditions at Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman

by David M. Reutter

On April 20, 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a report finding conditions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman likely violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of the prisoners held there. DOJ is reportedly working with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) on a series of recommendations, but it could also file a lawsuit if those are not adopted.

Specifically, DOJ found that DOC fails to protect prisoners from violence by other prisoners, fails to meet the serious medical needs of prisoners, fails to take adequate suicide prevention measures, and places prisoners at serious risk of harm with the use of prolonged stays in restrictive housing. “The problems at Parchman are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision,” the report noted.

DOJ opened its investigation in February 2020 under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), focusing on the Parchman penitentiary and three other DOC prisons: Southern Mississippi Correctional Institute, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility. The investigation at the latter three prisons continues. The investigation began after riots broke out at all four prisons between December 29, 2018 and January 3, 2019. Five prisoners were killed and dozens were injured, with most of the deaths and injuries occurring at Parchman. Another three prisoners were found hanging in their cells. A fire was set in a Parchman unit and two prisoners escaped before being recaptured. [See: PLN, July 2020, p.1.] It took over 100 Mississippi Highway Patrol troopers and local sheriff’s deputies to quell the violence.

Parchman is the oldest of five prisons in the DOC system, built in 1901. It currently holds 2,260 beds in five units, one of which — Unit 32 — reopened only recently. A former “supermax” facility, it was shuttered under a 2010 consent decree. [See: PLN, Feb. 2011, p.22.] The prison’s daily population dropped from 3,255 in December 2019 to 1,989 at the time of the DOJ’s April 2022 report. Unit 29, the prison’s largest, can house up to 1,500 prisoners, but Gov. Tate Reeves (R) instructed DOC to begin closing it on January 28, 2020.

DOJ’s investigation found “widespread, largely unchecked, violence against incarcerated persons by other incarcerated persons in Parchman.” It further found these “systemic failures result in an environment rife with weapons, drugs, gang violence, and extortion.” Worse, DOC officials “have long known about these unsafe prison conditions, but have continually failed to correct the conditions,” the report reads.

In detailing the failure to provide reasonable safety from widespread violence, DOJ noted four known homicides at Parchman in 2019, followed by six more in 2020, three of which occurred during a single week in early January. One of those murdered prisoners was stabbed 89 times. Another suffered 75 stab wounds. The third died from strangulation.

DOJ tallied more than 100 documented assaults at Parchman from 2018 through May 2020. Of the non-deadly assaults, more than 25 involved stabbings. In one October 2020 incident, a single guard assigned to watch about 180 prisoners did not know three of them stabbed a fourth in the shower until almost three hours after the incident. Video evidence confirmed the prisoner was stabbed at least 12 times. A supervisor related that the last time a guard had entered the unit was five-and-a-half hours before staff recovered the stabbing victim.

“[G]rossly insufficient levels of security staff … result in lack of supervision and control,” the report concludes. Yet understaffing at Parchman is still on the rise. A May 2021 staffing report counted 206 guards but 417 positions, a vacancy rate greater than 50%. An external study concluded Parchman requires 502 positions, raising its vacancy rate to 59%. As a result, DOC fails to staff critical posts or to ensure performance of basic security functions, DOJ said. Rather, the “barebones” staffing at Parchman means guards have “little physical presence inside dormitories and other housing units.”

DOC policy requires guards to make rounds every 30 minutes, but that often does not occur, DOJ found. Sometimes, supervisors failed to conduct patrols even once in a 12-hour shift. After a stabbing at Parchman’s Unit 30 on January 21, 2020, a prisoner was required to call the sheriff’s office to report it. When guards arrived 30 minutes later, they found two prisoners stabbed. One of the victims said the fight occurred about 12 hours before he was discovered. Just a few hours later, a homicide occurred in the same Unit.

Violence against staffers also makes them apprehensive about entering the Units, DOJ said, tallying more than 30 assaults on staff from January 2018 through May 2020. That may be why after a trainee witnessed a stabbing in Unit 30 in November 2019, it took 20 minutes for guards to respond to his call for backup. They then called for emergency medical staff, which took another 15 minutes to arrive. By that point — 35 minutes after the assault — the prisoner was breathing but bleeding badly. Medical staff placed him in an air ambulance, but he died en route to the hospital.

DOJ noted that prisoners also take extreme measures, such as setting fires, to gain staff attention after being assaulted. But the physical presence of guards “on the units and interaction with the incarcerated population is vital to keeping people safe,” the report said. “Regular interaction with the incarcerated population helps staff and those in their custody develop a rapport, which helps staff acquire intelligence about problematic individuals, gangs, contraband, and potential impending harm. Most importantly, staff presence in the housing units serves as a visual reminder of authority and security that deters misconduct.”

Failure to Prevent Violence
or Contraband or Provide
Mental Health Care

Instead, serious incidents also go without being investigated, DOJ said, listing three violent clashes that the Correctional Investigations Division (CID) failed to investigate. “Most troubling, of the 100 assaults on individuals incarcerated at Parchman noted above, [DOC] produced only 24 corresponding CID investigations in response to our requests.”

In a few instances, CID failed to investigate after large amounts of contraband were uncovered. During an August 2019 search of the Unit 30 kitchen, guards found 55 pounds of tobacco, 47 cans of snuff, 26 lighters, one digital scale, nine cellphones, 39 charger wires and 11 charger heads, along with 47 bottles of clear alcohol, two bottles of MOJO shots, one brick, one large pack and four small packs of marijuana, 28 white pills, four scan discs, and other contraband. In this way, the report said, “[DOC] subjects persons incarcerated at Parchman to serious harm and unreasonable risk of serious harm by failing to prevent massive amounts of dangerous contraband from entering and moving throughout the facility.”

DOJ also said that in the first six months of 2020, guards found 555 “shanks,” which included one commercially manufactured “free world” knife, and 630 cellphones. “The market trade for drugs is so pervasive that staff found at least 15 scales that incarcerated persons use to weigh drugs in 2019. This included seven digital scales, which are rarely heard of in prisons,” the report said.

“The sheer magnitude of contraband points to staff involvement,” DOJ continued, yet “failure to investigate contraband discoveries represents a continuous missed opportunity to understand how contraband is introduced into the facility, and deliberate indifference to instituting corrective action to curb future occurrences.”

As a result, DOC “appears to tolerate large amounts of dangerous contraband as part of prison life.” The “underground economy for contraband results in dangerous competition for control of the black market,” DOJ added, finding DOC fails to control gang activity and violence spurred by that market. The deadly riots in early 2020 were acknowledged to be gang related. Extortion was confirmed by supervisory staff at Parchman. Yet “[DOC] does not appear to have any systematic or coordinated strategy to discover, investigate, or proactively prevent extortion.”

The report then turned to DOC’s failure to provide adequate mental health care, finding this results in suicides and harm to prisoners from prolonged segregation in Restrictive Housing Units (RHU). The problem starts at intake, where mental health screening does not accurately identify prisoners with mental illness, “which results in Parchman’s failure to provide adequate mental health treatment,” DOJ said.

Prisoners are assessed with a suicide screening form that focuses upon their risk of committing suicide. But “[t]he few questions about other mental health issues are focused primarily on prior psychiatric treatment, including the use of psychoactive medication,” DOJ found, and there were no questions “designed to identify individuals with mental health difficulties who have not received formal mental health treatment, which is a significant percentage of incarcerated individuals with mental illness.”

The result is that only 10% of Parchman’s population is on the mental health caseload, though 25–30% of prisoners in most prisons are in need of mental health care. Later mental health assessments at Parchman also do not remedy DOC’s intake screening deficiencies.

One problem is that a large number of prisoners suffer from PTSD, but mental health providers do not consider clinically significant trauma-related difficulties. DOJ found that “Parchman mental health records also reflect an overreliance on the diagnoses of Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) and Malingering.” Typically, 3% of the non-prison population receives such diagnoses, but at Parchman one or the other popped up in half of the medical records reviewed by DOJ’s expert, who also found a high amount of substance abuse disorders.

“The excessive and presupposed use of ASPD and malingering diagnoses at Parchman results in the clinicians treating reports of mental health crisis symptoms as a behavioral concern to be addressed by security, rather than a medical concern to be addressed by a clinician,” the report continued. “Repetitive, ‘bothersome’ behaviors, including suicidal gestures, are relegated to security to address.”

DOC was also found to provide inadequate mental health treatment. Mental health staff is insufficient, and “treatment” is more accurately described as “monitoring visits” and “medication administration.” Prisoners at risk of suicide are not identified, and when they are, they are placed in cells that are dangerous and which increase their suicide risk. Of the 20 prisoners who committed suicide at Parchman since January 2015, 14 had a history of suicidal behavior but “only [a] few” were receiving mental health services at the time of their death.

“[DOC] has demonstrated a pattern or practice of prolonged restrictive housing” for prisoners who have serious medical and mental health needs, the report continued. On average, prisoners spend 515 days in RHU and some spend several years. The report found the prolonged segregation not only negatively impacted the mentally ill, but injured the mental state of prisoners with no prior mental health issues.

The report detailed specific steps DOC must take to come into compliance with constitutional standards at Parchman and warned that the U.S. Attorney General may initiate a lawsuit anytime 49 days after it was issued. See: Investigation of the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman), U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Right Division, April 20, 2022. 

Additional sources: Mississippi Today, New York Times

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