Citing Expert Reports on Inhumane Prison Conditions, ACLU Asks Court to Speed Review of MS Prison Case
JACKSON, MS--The American Civil Liberties Union today asked a federal court to speed review of a lawsuit over prison conditions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, citing reports by court-appointed experts detailing inhumane conditions that have directly contributed to psychiatric problems in the prison population.
The reports were submitted today by the ACLU's National Prison Project as part of a lawsuit filed in July on behalf of six incarcerated men at Parchman. All four reports describe a similar picture of conditions so extreme that they seriously jeopardize the health and safety of the prisoners incarcerated in Unit 32, which houses Mississippi's death-row prisoners, its severely mentally ill prisoners, and prisoners being disciplined for rule violations.
""When we brought this case in July we knew that prison conditions were terrible,"" said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU's National Prison Project. ""The expert reports we have now received are so disturbing that we are asking the court to move this case up on the docket before prisoners suffer further harm or even death.""
According to the report of expert psychiatrist Terry A. Kupers, who toured the facilities in August, ""the presence of severely psychotic prisoners who foul their cells, stop up their toilets, flood the tiers with excrement, and keep other prisoners awake all night with their incessant screams and shouts,"" are ""virtually certain to cause medical illness and destruction of mental stability and functioning.""
Kupers said that conditions on the Unit include solitary confinement combined with ""the extremes of heat and humidity, a grossly unsanitary environment, vermin, arbitrary and punitive disciplinary policies, and inadequate health and mental health care.""
Dr. Susi Vassallo, an expert on heat-related illnesses, describes in her report the conditions she experienced in one death row prisoner's cell. ""When I closed the Plexiglass door, it was like getting into a car parked in the hot Texas sun and sitting with the windows rolled up,"" she wrote. ""I needed to breathe deeply just to feel that I was getting enough air. . . I could not understand how anyone could be locked up in that hot box for any length of time without losing control.""
In a civilized society, Winter said, ""no one should be subjected to treatment like this. The state may be authorized to execute death-sentenced prisoners, but it may not torture prisoners to death while they are pursuing their rights to appeal their sentences.""
Many of those appeals will succeed, Winter added. Of 183 death sentences imposed in Mississippi since 1976, the Mississippi Supreme Court has reversed the death penalty in 41 percent of the direct appeals it has ruled on. In fact, almost as many people have had their convictions reversed as have been executed.
Any relief will come too late for Tracy Alan Hansen. Hansen was a death row inmate on Unit 32 and named plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit when he was executed on July 17th. Requests from ACLU attorneys and Hansen's defense attorneys to halt the scheduled execution so that he could testify in the conditions case were denied.
The reports by Kupers and Vassallo, as well as by environmental expert James Balsamo and corrections expert Vincent M. Nathan, were filed today in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi in connection with the ACLU lawsuit Russell v. Johnson. ACLU of Mississippi attorney Sandi Farrell, Stephen F. Hanlon of Holland & Knight and Jackson, and Mississippi civil rights attorney Robert McDuff are serving as co-counsel in the case.
The ACLU legal complaint is online at http://archive.aclu.org/court/russell.pdf.
To read the motion for expedited trial in this case please go to: http://archive.aclu.org/court/russell_motion.pdf.
Photos documenting the deplorable conditions of the prison are online at http://archive.aclu.org/news/2002/n090602b.html.