Why Mississippi Officials Needed to Answer for Inhumane and Dangerous Prison Conditions

This spring, we took the Mississippi Department of Corrections to court for the grave abuses and inhumane conditions they allowed at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a private prison in Meridian. No court decision will undo the harm done to the prisoners. But the court can require an end to the barbarity at the facility that we detailed in our fight for the constitutional rights of prisoners there.

Over the course of a five-week trial, lawyers from the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, Covington & Burling LLP, and the Law Offices of Elizabeth Alexander presented evidence against the Mississippi Department of Corrections in support of seven separate constitutional violations: for failure to protect prisoners from harm; for excessive use of force by staff on prisoners; for unsafe and unsanitary environmental conditions ; for substandard nutrition; for use of solitary confinement; for inadequate medical care; and for substandard mental health care.

Witness testimony was damning.

From January through June 2017, the correctional facility averaged 16.5 prisoner-on-prisoner or prisoner-on-staff assaults per month. For that same period, facility staff recovered an average of 31.17 weapons per month.

“This is not a normal prison,” testified Eldon Vail, the former secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections. “It’s a facility that has a persistent problem with violence,” Vail said, “well beyond what I’ve seen in other prisons.” He would know. Vail has over 35 years of experience in corrections, including working in prisons and running statewide system

At trial, prisoner witnesses testified that the prison fails to take even basic security measures, such as ensuring that the locks on cell doors actually work. The ease with which the locks can be tampered with creates an environment rife with violence. “It’s easy to manipulate them,” testified John Barrett, a named plaintiff in the case. “I mean all you need is a milk carton . . . or a piece of paper.” When asked why prisons across the country don’t have this problem, one of the state’s expert witnesses testified, “Their staff takes measures to correct the problem.”

In addition to presenting evidence on the dark and dirty living conditions at the facility, prisoner and expert witnesses described smoky and dangerous conditions caused by constant fires. For instance, over a two-week period from February 25 through March 12, 2017, prisoners in the solitary confinement unit set 66 separate fires — more than four fires per day. Most of the time, prisoners set these fires to get staff attention for their basic human needs, such as emergency medical care and mental health care. Without setting fires, the prisoners would be ignored.

Learn more about the case

Prison administrators also didn’t ensure adequate staffing to run its facility. This extended to necessary medical and mental health care. At a facility where 96 percent of prisoners take medication, EMCF struggles to deliver necessary medications.

The story of prisoner Merlin Hill is emblematic of the medical ineptitude at the prison. Racked with tremors due to a life-threatening seizure disorder, Hill testified that every month the facility’s medical staff allows his medications to lapse. Even worse, every couple weeks, they allow his anti-psychotic medication to run out — forcing him to deal with “murderous thoughts, suicidal thoughts, pains in my head.”

Mr. Hill’s story is not an isolated event.

Despite the fact that 1,099 out of about 1,200 patients at the prison require mental health care, EMCF also does not provide essential treatment services, like group therapy and individual counseling to prisoners. According to a MDOC audit, only 10 percent of the patients reviewed had evidence of group therapy in their medical records. The medical records of prisoners that were sampled in that same review reflected that only 25 percent of the prisoners in the unit for patients with the most acute mental illnesses showed evidence of group therapy. None of the sampled records for that unit showed evidence of individual therapy every 30 days.

These problems persist at the facility because the Department of Corrections has abdicated its responsibility to care for prisoners by putting them in the hands of private contractors. Management & Training Corporation runs the prison, while Centurion of Mississippi provides health care and mental health care to facility prisoners. But Mississippi officials fail to hold these contractors responsible for the care of Mississippi most vulnerable prisoners — those with serious mental illnesses. At trial, Dr. Gloria Perry, chief medical officer for the Department of Corrections, whose job is to oversee the medical and mental health care provided by private contractors in Mississippi prisons, admitted that she had never even visited the facility.

The lawsuit against the East Mississippi Correctional Facility highlights a major problem with private prisons. The profit motive encourages contractors to sacrifice prisoners’ health and rights, especially in areas of staffing and treatment, in order to cut costs and squeeze a higher profit margin out of the contract. And while this may violate the terms of their contracts with state and federal officials, that is meaningless if those officials fail to enforce those agreements.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections has a responsibility to provide safe and humane conditions for prisoners in their charge. Mississippi officials cannot abdicate responsibility by turning facilities over to for-profit companies and then bury their heads in the sand. When officials turn their backs on prisoners and detainees who are suffering, we will hold those officials accountable.

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Michelle johnson

My boyfriend bobby joe Wilkerson was killed on Halloween 2011.

Anonymous

DEEPEST CONDOLENCES TO ALL EFFECTED BY THE TRAGEDY

Tom Lehr

I belong to a prison ministry,twice a year we go to smci in leakesville, talk about bad,the governor doesnt care, the old adage, out of sight out of mind applies, food is a joke,violence, and many taking meds to walk around in a stupor

Anonymous

I picked up my fiance from Harrison county jail last night. Unpaid traffic violation, but anyway when i picked him up he looked something bad. Then on the way home he began telling me what he went through. As a nurse, the stuff he talked about concerned me, especially the health dangers. For one,when i asked him about sleep because he looked like he hadn't slept for days..well, that was correct. The cells are all overcrowded so the benches to sleep on aren't enough for everyone in the cell. For the ones that don't have room your only option is the floor..here's where my stomach churned and the nurse in me was infuriated, the staff don't clean the floor and so there literally was urine and feces all over the floor..and get ready for it..there were cellmates so exhausted they were actually sleeping on the floor in urine and feces! do you know how many feces borne diseases and infections there are? When you sleep how many times to turn your head to the side? This means those bacteria and viruses from feces entered entered their mouths, nasal passages, you get the point..and guess what? the staff just go about their business like its okay. I also noticed signs of dehydration he had been there 2 days. He said he hadn't really drank much at all...yes ,he was in fact dehydrated...why, because he wouldn't drink water from the same water source they defecate in. That's right..The water source is connected to the toilet they are all one piece. And the faucet and toilet are built so close together it spreads back and forth. pretty much the same heath danger as the sleeping in urine and feces they were doing. Seeing why my stomach was churning and this nurse was getting mad??? Nutrition well, they eat the same sandwich 3 times a day, ham sandwich and i believe he said bologne you only have a couple choices...yet according to the Harrison county jail website said 3 meals a day. I wouldn't call that a meal, in fact i feed my dog better than that. In fact, as he was speaking to me, someone who only adopts not buy pets. Every humane society i've been to in my life has been more sanitary than this. Shelter dogs and cats receive better care, treatment, nutrition, etc.. than this man received. When he had to see the nurse for what looks like to me is nerve damage in his hand from the cuffs and about his bad shoulder, the nurse didn't even assess him..how do i know? the stuff i caught by really assessing him. Bet, your bottom dollar though, she charted in his chart she took a look at him, but NO she didn't. I could keep going but, I'm sure your seeing why I'm so sickened by now, without me going further.. I don't care what a inmate did, whether its something small like him or big like others in there..No one deserves to have their health endangered, go hungry, go thirsty or have injuries ignored. We are human beings every last one of us on this earth and should all be treated as such...okay...rant over.

Anonymous

In Jackson, MS My husband says there are 144 men in a large room with bunk beds attached to the walls and only 1 guard. They call this intake portion "quick beds". Some men have been there for 3 months. Intake is not a quick thing. They allow the inmates to keep razors in their stuff and one man had his testicles cut last week... People are smoking, he sounds very congested. Not to mention his description of filthy shower floors. His injection for chrones disease is now 10 days overdue and the medical office has not returned any of our calls. My husband has been falsely accused and we have already filed for a new trial, but no one should be treated this way. I agree that animal shelters are cleaner than this.

Anonymous

Indiana county jails are terrible they leave people in the drunk tank for sometimes 2 weeks or more with the same disgusting sanitation and over crowding as you described the cells that are designed for 2 people with a bunk bed and toilet with the attached water your described they are the same in the prison too a 23rd person was on the floor in most cells the rec room had people sleeping on mats, cots or just the floor and they actually opened up a drain in the floor to use as a toilet the food is unidentifiable and less than a elementary school tray often with expired food and drinks, spoiled milk cartons one of the cans of food they serve that's like a chili substance actually says not intended for human consumption. They left my boyfriend in withdrawal from heroin and pain meds lay in the floor of the drunk tank for over 2 weeks the inmates yelling for medical help for him he was extremely sick and in pain was dangerously dehydrated, was often unconscience, was too weak to eat or even call me or his lawyerhe is a tall thin guy naturally he lost over 20lbs in those 2 weeks and almost 40 more from lack of food and nutrition and I was spending $40 to $100 a week in commissary in the months before he was finally transfered to prison. The prison my boyfriend was at wasn't bad but it was minimum security working prison so they had a job to do everyday his group did maintenance on equipment and built fire breaks and field work on a military base he liked that bc it kept him busy and outside but safety was not a priority and safety gear was not provided. Unfortunately he is back and 5 days in a holding cell that is about 5x6 maybe with a toilet and a pour cement raise step for a seat for 1 person and there is one other guy in there with him. They can't even lay on the floor if they wanted to there isn't enough space, found out yesterday they have no paperwork on him and had no record of him being there at all he was to report after court and sentencing and did was told he would be in the holding cell for a couple hours while they process his paperwork and then moved upstairs to cells or dorm since he was already in the system because he was out on bond luckily one of the COs knows us and was confused why he was on the roster when she saw him in the holding cell. She raised hell starting yesterday morning and went up the chain they told her he would be moved by night shift and she was off today He's still sitting waiting.

Anonymous

The sad thing is this is all still going on even with the ACLU investigation my fiancé is there now and I'm getting phone calls daily threaten his life he has told me he is terrified to sleep they come in and take his tray before the guard ever even gives it to him I have called the prison repeatedly and they tell me they will look into it but nothing is happening I'm scared to death I'm going to get a phone call that he has been murdered

Anonymous

Well it is now December 2018, South Mississippi Correctional is only staffed at 43%. Prisoner diets are not nutritious and not enough. One building doesn't even have heat. It is now dipping in to the 30's. They won't even give them extra blankets. Inmates are sleeping in all their clothes. They rarely if ever get to go outside and when they do it's just a small pen with nothing to do but stand around. 11 prisoners died in one months time. Looks like Mississippi has no intention of doing anything to make things right.

Anonymous

what about prisoners sleeping in unsanitary floors due to no vacant beds

Wife of inmate

I had my husbands biologic medication to the local jail where he was being held. The cash price is around $4,099 for a set of 2 injections. My husband receives an injection every 2 weeks. The local jail gave him one injection and when he was moved to MDOC facility, it appears that they threw away the 2nd one. My husband asked the guard to get it from the fridge in nurses station before they transported him and the guard had it in his hand as they left the jail. Now, its 10 days overdue and the head of the medical division (who is not a nurse or dr.) Has not returned any of our calls or the paper message that was given to him by a secretary. The gastro doctor even faxed a letter stating that my husband has tried and failed 3 other medications and needs to stay on Humira. No response. Does the MDOC have the obligation to give him his medication? It is common for them to throw away all meds taht come with prisoners from other facilities. This med came in a box with original label and each injection was indivually sealed.

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