JACKSON, Miss. — A federal investigation into prison conditions following riots in January 2020 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman determined the Mississippi Department of Corrections violates prisoners’ civil rights by not providing adequate mental health services and protecting inmates from physical harm, federal officials said Wednesday.
Ten inmates died in less than a month, including eight at Parchman. Five were killed in the riots during a statewide prison lockdown and officials said some of the violence was gang-related.
State officials vowed there would be changes made after touring the prison and seeing firsthand the inhumane conditions that allegedly sparked the riots.
“No one’s sentence should include deliberate indifference by prison officials that leads to death or serious harm,” said Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. “The Constitution safeguards the inherent dignity of every human being, including people serving time in our prisons and jails.”
A 59-page report outlines the Department of Justice’s complete findings from its investigation of the prison. Clarke said copies of the report were sent to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
“The Justice Department concluded today, based upon a thorough investigation, that there is reasonable cause to believe that conditions and practices at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (also known as Parchman) violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” the department said in a news release.
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The announcement was made in a media call by Clarke and Mississippi U.S. Attorneys Clay Joyner and Darren LaMarca.
The report drew praise from Team Roc members, who have advocated for change in Mississippi’s prisons.
“On behalf of Team Roc, we are pleased to see the Department of Justice recognize the horrific conditions in Mississippi’s prisons,” Roc Nation CEO Desiree Perez said in a statement. “Because of the inhumane conditions, we filed lawsuits in Mississippi to help protect the men living inside the infamous Parchman prison.”
DOJ officials said there is cause to believe Mississippi routinely violates the constitutional rights of people incarcerated at Parchman by:
- Failing to provide adequate mental health treatment to people with serious mental health needs
- Failing to take sufficient suicide prevention measures to protect people at risk of self-harm
- Subjecting people to prolonged isolation in solitary confinement in egregious conditions that place their physical and mental health at substantial risk of serious harm
- Failing to protect incarcerated people from violence at the hands of other incarcerated people.
“These conditions have resulted in 10 homicides and 12 suicides at Parchman since 2019,” Clarke said.
Violence brews at Parchman:Lack of funding, not enough guards and decrepit conditions
Mississippi Department of Corrections spokesman Leo Honeycutt said he was advised by attorneys against making a statement, deferring to Gov. Tate Reeves’ office.
The lawsuit was filed after Team Roc, the philanthropic arm of Roc Nation, an entertainment company that includes founder Jay Z and rapper Yo Gotti, wrote letters to Reeves and former Gov. Phil Bryant asking for changes to be made at Parchman.
“For years, the incarcerated population has been forced to live inside rat-infested conditions and survive with a water system contaminated with human feces all with non-existent health care resources available to them,” Perez said. “Over the past three years, the death toll has been utterly devastating and we hope today’s report brings many families and their loved ones one step closer toward getting the justice they deserve. We applaud the Department of Justice for their report.”
Team Roc also helped file two federal lawsuits against the Department of Corrections.
“Plaintiffs’ lives are in peril,” one lawsuit begins. “Individuals held in Mississippi’s prisons are dying because Mississippi has failed to fund its prisons, resulting in prisons where violence reigns because prisons are understaffed. In the past two weeks alone, five men incarcerated in Mississippi have died as the result of prison violence. These deaths are a direct result of Mississippi’s utter disregard for the people it has incarcerated and their constitutional rights.”
Violence in the Mississippi prison system went on for more than a week, with state corrections officials imposing a statewide lockdown.
Yo Gotti responded to the Department of Justice report by renewing his commitment to helping the inmates.
“My heart goes out to the incarcerated men who have suffered without access to clean water, food and health care and the families that tragically lost loved ones in the process,” he said. “I will continue to stand up for the voiceless until they receive justice they deserve. I’m grateful for the U.S. Department of Justice’s thorough report to hold the Mississippi Department of Corrections accountable for the cruel and inhumane treatment of the incarcerated population.”
Prison conditions at Parchman were allowed to deteriorate after federal courts ended oversight of the facility in 2011, according to an investigation by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica.
Inmates described themselves as being prey to prison gangs who control the supply of contraband drugs and weapons, bedding, food and cellular phones, the Clarion Ledger reported in earlier stories.
Photographs and videos reviewed by news organizations show the most dangerous inmates, identified by their red-and-white striped uniforms, walking freely outside their cells, with no guards in sight.
In 2020, Reeves implemented new measures meant to “stop the bleeding” and protect inmates and guards in an ongoing prison crisis.
“We know that there are problems in the system. We don’t want to hide them, we want to fix them,” he said.
An attempt to reach Reeves’ office for comment was unsuccessful.