Groups Seek Class Action Status for Federal Lawsuit over Human Rights Violations
September 26, 2014
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MERIDIAN, Miss. – Civil rights advocates filed a motion in federal court today to protect all prisoners at the for-profit East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF) from conditions that corrections and medical experts have described as "dangerous," "dysfunctional," and tantamount to "torture."
The motion asks the court to certify a 2013 lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections as a class action. If approved, the lawsuit would benefit all prisoners at the facility, including the majority who have serious mental health needs. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Law Office of Elizabeth Alexander, and Covington & Burling LLP filed the motion in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, Northern Division.
The motion includes hundreds of pages of expert reports that give a glimpse into a dank and filthy prison that left the experts aghast. They document a facility where cell doors don't lock, prison officials frequently resort to unnecessary force, and prisoners struggle to receive the medical care they need – even paying copays for each sick call request that far too often don't result in the prisoner seeing a nurse or doctor.
"After touring the facility, experts confirmed what plaintiffs, as well as the Mississippi Department of Corrections, have long known: conditions at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility are inhumane by any standard," said Ajmel Quereshi, staff counsel for the ACLU's National Prison Project. "Security guards facilitate prisoner-on-prisoner assaults; cells covered in blood are left uncleaned; prisoners with cancer are denied treatment; and those who attempt suicide are ignored by mental health staff."
The prison is operated by Utah-based Management and Training Corporation, with health services provided by Health Assurance, LLC, based in Jackson. Both companies operate under contract with the Mississippi Department of Corrections system.
"The hellish conditions that have been allowed to fester inside this for-profit prison should shock anyone with any sense of decency," said Jody Owens, managing attorney for the SPLC's Mississippi office. "It's sickening that private companies earn profits through the misery and suffering of mentally ill prisoners who can't get their most fundamental human needs met. The people of Mississippi should be outraged."
The expert reports detail many disturbing instances of prisoner treatment.
- A mental health counselor concluded a prisoner with a rope around his neck wasn't in distress even after the prisoner said he didn't have a reason to live, complained of heart pain and attempted to cut himself with a dull object. The prisoner later died, apparently from a heart condition prison staff rarely took seriously. Remarkably, his medical records noted his vital signs were stable – 10 hours after his death.
- A 31-year-old patient with a brain tumor who did not receive a timely CT scan or referral to a neurosurgeon.
- A 28-year-old prisoner lost vision in his right eye when he didn't receive his glaucoma medication. He was already blind in his left eye.
Prisoner medical records are another concern. One expert compared medication records to "Swiss cheese" because there are so many holes. Entries documenting rounds by personnel frequently appear to be nothing more than a summary stating the prisoner is fine that has been repeatedly copied and pasted. Prisoners also appear to live weeks to months in dark segregation cells with broken or missing light bulbs.
"Taken as a whole, the conditions in solitary confinement at EMCF are the worst I have witnessed in my 40 years as a forensic psychiatrist investigating jail and prison conditions," Dr. Terry A. Kupers wrote in a report examining the prison's mental health care system. "These conditions can accurately be described as torture according to international human rights agreements and standards. They press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate."
For the expert reports and other information about Dockery v. Epps, see https://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/dockery-v-epps.
For information about the ACLU's National Prison Project, see https://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights.
For information about the Southern Poverty Law Center, see www.splcenter.org.