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The First Step to Fix a Broken Prison? Set the Record Straight

By Gabriel Eber, ACLU National Prison Project & Margaret Winter, National Prison Project at 11:53am

Over the last couple weeks, we've been talking a lot about East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a violent and dangerously understaffed prison where patients with severe mental illnesses go without basic mental health care and many prisoners cut themselves or attempt suicide. The ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Law Offices of Elizabeth Alexander recently filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the more than 1,100 prisoners confined at EMCF.

The prisoners at EMCF allege that they are denied adequate medical and mental health care and are subjected to uncontrolled violence, excessive force, filthy and dangerous conditions, insufficient nutrition, and inhumane solitary confinement.

We filed the lawsuit after a lengthy investigation, assessments by two correctional health care experts, and attempts to work with Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) to improve conditions without the need for litigation. Private, for-profit contractors MTC and Health Assurance operate the prison and provide health care services, respectively, but it is MDOC that is responsible for ensuring that conditions of confinement meet Constitutional standards.

Although the complaint is 83 pages of detailed allegations and legal formulations, the goal of the lawsuit is simple: to turn a broken institution into a safe and secure environment where seriously mentally ill prisoners can receive treatment before returning to the community at the end of their sentences.

On Thursday, MDOC issued its first written response to the lawsuit in the form of a press release. Although the press release states that "it is the agency's policy to let the facts play out in court," it proceeds to lay out facts – "facts" that require correction:

  • "When MDOC has been made aware of problems, it has responded accordingly."
    Not the case. The allegations in the lawsuit are nothing new: they have been brought to the department's attention for at least the last two years by multiple experts, internal investigations, MDOC employees, civil rights groups, and the prisoners themselves. Yet conditions at EMCF remain dangerous and unconstitutional.
  • "[MDOC] does not knowingly ignore informed and sound requests for solutions."
    More than a year before the lawsuit was filed, we joined SPLC to send a letter to the department outlining the problems at EMCF. We proposed a solution: the ACLU and SPLC would pay for a team of experts to assess conditions at EMCF and issue recommendations. These recommendations would form the basis for a settlement agreement, thus eliminating the need for years of litigation. MDOC acknowledged receipt of the letter and, shortly after, rejected our proposal.
  • "The plaintiffs indicated they were happy when [private prison contractor] MTC was hired. Now they indicate that they want the current operator fired."
    Certainly, the departure of the previous contractor was a positive step. But, as stated in our letter to MDOC and later in a letter published in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, "a new prison vendor may bring in new faces to the facility, but will do nothing to fix the department's ongoing lack of oversight of EMCF."

The press release wasn't entirely inaccurate, though. In fact, with respect to the most important statement, the press release got it right:

  • "The mere fact that MDOC has settled prior litigation with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) shows its willingness to sit at the table to listen, to do what is right, based on facts."
    On this point, we are in complete agreement. MDOC has come to the table to listen, do what is right, and settle prior litigation involving other facilities. We hope the same will be true for East Mississippi Correctional Facility.

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