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JACKSON, Miss. – The American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Law Offices of Elizabeth Alexander filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of prisoners at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, describing the for-profit prison as hyper-violent, grotesquely filthy and dangerous, "operating in a perpetual state of crisis" where prisoners are at "grave risk of death and loss of limbs" and often resort to setting fires to receive medical attention. The facility, located in Meridian, Miss., is supposed to provide intensive treatment to the state's prisoners with severe psychiatric disabilities, many of whom are locked down in long-term solitary confinement.
"The East Mississippi Correctional Facility is a cesspool," said Gabriel Eber, staff counsel with the ACLU National Prison Project. "When you combine solitary confinement, abuse, lack of basic medical and mental health care, and denial of basic human needs, it's a recipe for disaster. The East Mississippi Correctional Facility is a throwback to the brutal prisons of decades ago, and the Mississippi Department of Corrections must do better."
The class action lawsuit against state prison officials describes how prison officials have known of these conditions for years but failed to protect the health and safety of prisoners. The ACLU and SPLC offered to pay for an assessment of the system last year, but the offer was rejected. The facility is operated by the Management and Training Corporation with health care provided by Health Assurance, LLC.
"The issues found at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility represent a long history of inhumane prison conditions in which the state has allowed private prison operators to mistreat and abuse people," said Jody Owens II, managing attorney for the SPLC Mississippi office. "As we remember the tragic costs associated with private prison operators, we must demand more oversight of these facilities."
The lawsuit filed today describes a facility where prisoners are often locked in filthy cells and ignored even when they are suffering from serious medical issues. Many cells lack light and working toilets, forcing prisoners to use trays or plastic bags that are tossed through slots in their cell doors. Rats often climb over prisoners' beds, and some prisoners capture the rats, put them on makeshift leashes, and sell them as pets to other inmates.
Although designated as a facility to care for prisoners with special needs and serious psychiatric disabilities, EMCF denies prisoners even the most rudimentary mental health care services. One prisoner is now blind after EMCF failed to provide his glaucoma medications and take him to a specialist, and another had part of his finger amputated after he was stabbed and developed gangrene.
The prison also seriously underfeeds prisoners. According to the lawsuit, a correctional health expert notified the Mississippi Department of Corrections of this problem after reviewing prisoner records that showed a pattern of prisoners losing significant amounts of weight at EMCF – some more than 20 or 30 pounds.
Despite evidence demonstrating the adverse effect of long-term solitary confinement on prisoners' mental health, the prison continues to place prisoners in isolation for weeks, months or years at a time with little stimulation or access to showers and medical care. Prisoners in solitary confinement frequently set fires or flood their cells to get attention for medical treatment.
"Solitary confinement is a difficult thing for anyone to handle but it is especially challenging for a person suffering from mental illness," said Alesha Judkins, senior advocate at SPLC. "Prisoners who suffer from hallucinations report that isolation absent treatment and stimulation exacerbates their condition and impacts their overall health."
The lawsuit, which was announced at a rally this morning, can be viewed here.