JACKSON, Miss. – Trial begins today in Dockery, et al. v. Hall, et al., a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of prisoners at East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF) in Meridian, Mississippi. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Law Offices of Elizabeth Alexander, and Covington & Burling LLP will show that the Mississippi Department of Corrections has operated the prison in a continuous state of crisis, neglect, and abuse for years, causing extreme and preventable suffering for thousands of prisoners in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The prison holds nearly 1,300 people, roughly 80 percent of whom have serious mental illness. The suit names Pelicia Hall, Commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, and other Mississippi officials who are responsible for ensuring that conditions at the prison comply with the Constitution. These officials contract with Management & Training Corporation (MTC), a private prison company, to operate the prison, and with the for-profit company Centurion, to provide medical and mental health care to the prisoners. For at least a decade, prisoners have been subject to rampant violence and brutal attacks that staff often allow, including stabbings and rape; have experienced excessive use of force by staff; have received little or no medical care or mental health treatment, even during emergencies; have lived in filthy, dark cells without working lights or toilets; and have been locked down in solitary for months and often years.
“The Mississippi Department of Corrections has abdicated its responsibility to uphold the Constitution and to treat the people in its custody with human decency,” said Eric Balaban, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “The unnecessary and abhorrent suffering the department inflicts on the people inside East Mississippi Correctional Facility changes those men forever, and not for the better. The department exacts a human toll that reaches beyond the individual prisoners, its cruelty hurting the men’s families, neighbors, friends, coworkers, and entire communities.”
At trial, current prisoners at East Mississippi Correctional Facility and national experts in prison management will testify to the Department of Corrections’ awareness of the problems at the prison and how little has changed.
“MDOC has turned a blind eye to treatment at the prison, allowing corners to be cut so private profits can be maximized. Prisoners in segregation live in pods littered with trash and human waste, weapons are common, and officers are unable or unwilling to maintain order,” said Jody Owens, SPLC managing attorney for Mississippi. “With four reported deaths in the last two months, we know EMCF is not safe for anyone.”
At EMCF, suicidal prisoners are observed for short periods of time in the facility’s infirmary and then often returned to conditions in solitary confinement that increase the risk of suicide, where they may spend 24 hours a day without light, in a room no larger than a small bathroom. Approximately 120 suicidal people in solitary for more than three months in “abject filth and darkness,” according to filings.
“For almost seven years, the Mississippi Department of Corrections has been on notice of the horrible conditions at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility and has failed to remedy them,” said Erin Monju, litigation associate at Covington & Burling LLP. “We look forward to trying this case and to giving the prisoners of East Mississippi Correctional Facility their day in court.”
Elizabeth Alexander has spent her career litigating on behalf of prisoners’ rights across the country. “It has been decades since I have seen a prison with such deplorable conditions,” she said. “At the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, lights in the cells and showers often don’t work. The prisoners are frequently exposed to live wiring. They’re surrounded by ground-in filth, and unreliable plumbing doesn’t function. On top of these failures, the Mississippi Department of Corrections doesn’t even provide them with enough food. In addition, they are subjected to almost daily fires and smoke inhalation.”
In January 2016, a prisoner’s cellmate found him passed out on the floor, unresponsive, having defecated and urinated on himself. The cellmate began banging on the door and yelling. Guards passed by the cell but ignored him. Hours later, a supervisor finally instituted an emergency response, and the prisoner was sent to the emergency room, but returned to his cell later that day with instructions that he be monitored. Four hours later, he was found dead on the floor.
Over a period of six weeks later that spring, another prisoner hurt himself repeatedly, including by inserting glass shards into his arm and leaving them there, and also tried to hang himself. He was never treated for self-harm nor given a medically appropriate suicide risk assessment. He also wasn’t monitored adequately. On April 4, 2016, he cut his arm severely and called for help, sticking his blood-covered arm through the slot in his door. A correctional officer saw his arm but didn’t act. Two hours later, the prisoner had strangled himself to death.
The lawsuit, originally captioned Dockery v. Epps, was filed in 2013. The trial is expected to last several weeks.
For legal documents and other information about Dockery v. Hall, see:
Southern Poverty Law Center: Docket for Dockery v. Hall
Covington & Burling