Series: Locked Down
An Investigation of Mississippi’s Prisons
This article was produced by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a former member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.
Conditions at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman state prison violate the Constitution, the U.S. Justice Department said Wednesday.
“Our investigation uncovered evidence of systemic violations that have generated a violent and unsafe environment for people incarcerated at Parchman,” Kristen Clarke, the U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights, said at a press conference. “We are committed to taking action that will ensure the safety of all people held at Parchman and other state prison facilities.”
The department began investigating Parchman in February 2020 after the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica reported on increases in grisly violence, gang control and substandard living conditions. The news organizations found that state lawmakers had known about these problems for years and had done little to fix them.
In one example, a cellphone video appeared to show a fight at Parchman. Prisoners can be heard egging on the violence. Prison officials declined to authenticate the video, but several inmates said it matched details of the facility. Prison authorities later reported that a man was killed around the same time the video was circulating on social media.
“I’ve got him in a chokehold,” one inmate boasts.
Another inmate cheers him on: “Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. Dead. Oh, yeah. Dead. Deaaaaad.”
After the report, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and others called on the DOJ to investigate.
U.S. Attorney Clay Joyner of Oxford said: “Prisons have a constitutional obligation to keep safe the incarcerated persons who depend on them for their basic needs. Mississippi violated the rights of persons incarcerated at Parchman by failing to keep them safe from physical violence and for failing to provide constitutionally adequate mental health care.”
In a 59-page report, the DOJ said the prison had failed to protect inmates from violence at the hands of others, provide adequate mental health treatment or take sufficient suicide prevention measures. The report said penitentiary officials had subjected prisoners to “prolonged isolation in solitary confinement in egregious conditions that place their physical and mental health at substantial risk of serious harm.”
DOJ officials say they are committed to working with the state to ensure that prisoners’ civil rights are protected. Joyner told reporters that Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain, who was appointed in 2020, has already implemented some changes.
Responding to the department’s allegations, Gov. Tate Reeves said, “We have made significant strides at Parchman in the last two years, everything from significantly reducing the number of inmates at Parchman all the way to working with the Legislature this year to get funding to increase the number of officers we have.”
Parchman has a long history of being one of the nation’s worst prisons, but by 2011, it had turned a corner. After nearly four decades of court monitoring and an infusion of taxpayer dollars, new facilities had been built. Prisoner abuse had declined. A judge ended federal oversight, and Mississippi was once again entrusted with the care of its inmates.
In the years that followed, conditions at Parchman began to deteriorate. By 2017, accreditation for the prison had lapsed. Ron Welch, a Jackson lawyer who represented the state’s inmates until the monitoring ended, called the prison’s conditions an “unbelievable nightmare.”
The DOJ report said that Parchman inmates have been subjected to “an unreasonable risk of violence due to inadequate staffing, cursory investigative practices and deficient contraband controls,” adding that “these systemic failures result in an environment rife with weapons, drugs, gang activity, extortion and violence, including 10 homicides in 2019.”
Six homicides took place in 2020, three of them in a single week in January, when one inmate was stabbed 89 times, another 75 times and a third strangled to death, according to the report.
Another killing took place in October 2020, when several individuals stabbed an inmate 12 times in Unit 30’s shower. “The sole correctional officer assigned to watch the approximately 180 incarcerated persons in that area did not observe any signs of disturbance from her position in a tower removed from the floor,” the DOJ report said. “Approximately three hours after the stabbing, an incarcerated person alerted the officer that another incarcerated person needed help, and she called for backup. When help arrived, they found the victim unresponsive, and he was pronounced dead a few minutes later.”
An inmate told an investigator with the Mississippi Department of Corrections, or MDOC, that the killing was gang related. The DOJ report said state investigators blamed the death on a staff shortage but did not “investigate the alleged gang cause or take any interest in what happened to the apparently unrecovered weapon.”
The DOJ said this homicide illustrates how Parchman inmates are “on their own. It further demonstrates how MDOC’s cursory investigations fail to address the underlying causes for violence, such as gang activity, or the location of the weapon after the incident to prevent future violence.”
The DOJ cited MDOC’s “gross understaffing” in its report: “Although MDOC has made some efforts recently to recruit and hire more staff, Parchman has been operating with roughly half the needed staff since at least 2018.”
Because of that lack of staffing, the report alleged, two inmates in Unit 30 were stabbed on Jan. 21, 2020, but did not receive medical care until a dozen hours later when they were discovered. One inmate died later that day from skull fractures, rib fractures and other injuries. Another homicide took place just a few hours later.
Between 2014 and 2021, the number of correctional officers plummeted from 1,591 to 667. The inmate population shrank during that time from 21,919 to 16,945.
“The lack of supervision and staff presence on Parchman housing units creates an authority vacuum — where individuals incarcerated at Parchman rather than staff control the day-to-day operations of the units,” the report said. “As evidence of this absence of authority, persons confined to Parchman have openly defied contraband restrictions, posting photos of themselves on social media, or posting photos and videos of decrepit conditions in a cry for help. Unless MDOC institutes effective, necessary remedies to alleviate Parchman’s staffing and supervision crises, staff and incarcerated persons will remain at an unreasonable risk of serious harm.”
Even after succeeding in getting lawmakers to provide raises to correctional officers, Cain said it’s been difficult to recruit because of competition for workers.
The report said that MDOC fails “to identify incarcerated persons in need of mental health care. Parchman has too few qualified mental health staff to meet the mental health care needs of persons confined at Parchman, which results in serious harm.”
DOJ officials also said that MDOC failed “to identify individuals at risk of suicide and houses them — often unsupervised — in dangerous areas that are not suicide resistant.” In addition, MDOC fails to adequately train officers to identify signs and symptoms of suicidal behavior, the report said. Twelve individuals incarcerated at Parchman died by suicide in the last three years, all in single cells.
“The problems at Parchman are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision,” the report said.
Former Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall repeatedly asked the Republican-controlled Legislature for more money to hire guards and to fix up Parchman’s maximum-security block, known as Unit 29, but the request went nowhere, despite MDOC saying publicly that the unit was “unsafe for staff and inmates.”
On New Year’s Eve in 2019, “a fight in Parchman’s Unit 29 sparked what would become a prison riot lasting several weeks,” according to the report. “In the months leading up to the riot, there had been widespread reports about unlivable and unsanitary conditions through Parchman; violent murders and suicides on the rise; staffing plummeting to dangerous levels; and mounting concerns that gangs were filling the void left by inadequate staff presence and gaining increasing control of Parchman through extortion and violence.”
Despite those crises, Parchman staff were “caught off guard, utterly overwhelmed, and ultimately unable to adequately and quickly respond to fighting and significant injuries in multiple buildings,” the report said.
DOJ officials say their investigation of conditions at South Mississippi Correctional Institution, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility is continuing.
The DOJ is encouraging those with relevant information to contact it by phone at 833-591-0288 or by email at [email protected].