Lately, the Mississippi prison system has been doing a lot to challenge my assumption that HBO’s Oz was a complete work of fiction. The sheer violence and harsh living conditions inmates suffer alone is enough for Mississippi prison stories to inspire another season or two of the show.
Earlier this month, The Root reported that five inmates had been killed violently within a week of each other at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. The deaths included stabbings during fights and a prison riot in which two inmates had gone missing. Since then, the death toll has risen to nine, including the recent discovery of three men hanging in their cells in Pachman’s Unit 29, the Washington Post reports.
“Things are kind of surreal at this point,” Sunflower County Coroner Heather Burton told the Clarion-Ledger. “Every time the phone rings at this point, it’s another one.”
So now, the state of Mississippi is closing that unit in Parchman (because…well, yeah), according to Gov. Tate Reeves, who used his “State of the State” address to make the announcement on Monday as he vowed broad policy reform at the troubled prison.
“I’ve seen enough,” he said. “We have to turn the page.”
These deaths—and again, we’re talking nine within the first month of 2020—have fueled longstanding concerns about inmates’ treatment at Parchman and across Mississippi’s correctional system. Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, according to the Post, and the prison system has struggled with a lack of funding, declining numbers of guards and accusations of abuse.
The Clarion-Ledger reports that Congressman Bennie Thompson joined 11 civil rights groups earlier this month asking the Department of Justice to investigate, accusing Mississippi officials of “deliberately and systematically” putting prisoners at risk.
Even rappers Jay-Z and Yo Gotti are doing their part in supporting a recent lawsuit against the DOC’s commissioner, who stepped down this month to join the private sector.
“Plaintiffs’ lives are in peril,” the lawsuit filed on behalf of 29 inmates states, according to the Clarion-Ledger. “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.”
During his address on Monday, Reeves blamed a “leadership crisis” for recent events and said the Corrections Department’s interim head has already made changes as they look across the country for or a permanent new commissioner. The department’s second-in-command, Jerry Williams also left this month, announcing his retirement effective Jan 15.
Local news station WDAM-7 reports that Reeves, who visited Parchman last week amid growing concerns, is promising to make sure correctional system leaders are always available to officers, crack down on contraband cell phones that helped coordinate gang violence, and screen guards for gang affiliations.
“The problems were infuriating,” Reeves said Monday. “There is no excuse. We can do better.”
It should be emphasized that the violence at Parchman is part of a broader issue, which is the prison’s shoddy infrastructure. This is (allegedly) something officials are working hard to fix.
During a lockdown after the riot, many inmates were unable to shower for days. The interim commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Tommy Taylor, said Monday that Unit 29 inmates can now take warm showers and drink clean water, the Associated Press reports.
The prison building itself is also in need of some restructuring, but Taylor says that repairs are underway to keep rain out of buildings and that they are addressing electrical and heating issues. He added that toilets had just been fixed. (Wow.)
Unit 29 houses as many as 1,500 inmates, according to the Corrections Department. Earlier in January, officials moved 375 of them to another facility, which “provided some relief to an overstressed system” but still left hundreds more maximum-security inmates in need of housing, according to Pelicia Hall, who was Corrections Department commissioner at the time.
Regardless of how a person ended up in prison, once they are there their lives and well being are the responsibility of those who house them. They take them into their care, and the “care” part couldn’t be more pertinent.