November 15, 2007

Hundreds of Misclassified Prisoners Removed From "Supermax" Confinement

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: media@aclu.org

ABERDEEN, Miss. -- The American Civil Liberties Union, the law firm of Holland & Knight, LLP, and the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) have reached a landmark agreement paving the way for the continued sweeping reform of a super maximum security unit — Unit 32 — in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, once notorious for violence and chaos.  Under the agreement, MDOC will continue to remove hundreds of misclassified prisoners and all seriously mentally ill prisoners from supermax confinement; improve basic mental health care and impose additional restrictions on the use of force by guards.

The agreement was presented for approval today by the ACLU and the law firm of Holland & Knight, LLP to Federal District Judge Jerry A. Davis.  The consent decree addresses issues raised in Presley v. Epps, a case involving living conditions in Mississippi's supermax prison.

"Not long ago, Unit 32 was a dungeon where there was no hope.  It was a madhouse where men went insane from endless solitary confinement, violence and chaos," said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project.  "There are still problems in Unit 32, but there have been such dramatic and profound changes in the past several months that there is now hope. Unit 32 is a safer and more humane place for prisoners and for prison employees too, thanks to the hard work of all the parties in this case."

Unit 32, where every prisoner is traditionally held in solitary confinement and locked down 23 hours a day, has been commonly known for holding the "worst of the worst" prisoners in Mississippi. Just four months ago, there was a series of homicides, a suicide and the discovery of a gun in a prisoner's cell.

Nationally prominent classification expert Dr. James Austin, retained by the ACLU and MDOC to evaluate the classification system used at the prison, found that approximately 80 percent of the prisoners in Unit 32 did not require lock-down in administrative segregation.  Due to these findings, nearly half of the 1,000 prisoners in Unit 32 have recently been removed from supermax confinement and now have access to college classes, job opportunities and outdoor recreational activities.

"Prisoners who have been living in solitary confinement for many years are now playing basketball together, working at prison jobs and getting ready to take part in educational programs," said Stephen Hanlon of Holland & Knight.

A study conducted last month by corrections expert Kenneth McGinnis showed that incidents of use of force in Unit 32 have plummeted by as much as 75 percent since the implementation of these changes.  The prisoners' lawyers and MDOC have also agreed to a detailed plan for a step-down unit inside Unit 32 for severely mentally ill prisoners, in addition to vast improvements to basic mental health services, which will be implemented in 2008. 

The agreement, detailing the sweeping reforms inside the prison, can be found online at: www.aclu.org/prison/gen/32735lgl20071113.html

Dr. Austin's November report on classification in Unit 32 can be found online at: www.aclu.org/prison/gen/32780lgl20071115.html

Mr. McGinnis's October report on use of force in Unit 32 can be found online at: www.aclu.org/prison/gen/32781lgl20071115.html

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