3 Mississippi prisons violated Constitution with violence, poor conditions: DOJ

The Justice Department (DOJ) found three prisons in Mississippi violated the Constitution, citing violence, poor conditions and staffing shortages, per a new report.

The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and the Mississippi United States Attorney’s Office released a 60-page report Wednesday of an investigation into the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, South Mississippi Correctional Institution and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.

The report found conditions at the three prisons violate the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment, and the 14th Amendment, which requires incarcerated populations to be treated with equal protection.

“Our investigation uncovered chronic, systemic deficiencies that create and perpetuate violent and unsafe environments for people incarcerated at these three Mississippi facilities,” Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

“The unconstitutional conditions in Mississippi’s prisons have existed for far too long, and we hope that this announcement marks a turning point towards implementing sound, evidence-based solutions to these entrenched problems,” Clarke wrote.

According to the report, the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) failed to protect its incarcerated population from rampant violence.

Between September 2020 and June 2022, there were at least 325 assaults or fights between individuals at the Central Mississippi facility. Twenty-three of the incidents resulted in injuries that required those involved to receive outside hospitalization, the report found.

The South Mississippi facility reported nearly 100 assaults or fights, 40 of which required outside hospitalization, between June 2020 and June 2022.

At Wilkinson, more than 150 assaults or fights were reported between November 2020 and June 2022. Approximately 20 percent of those incidents required outside hospitalization, according to the DOJ.

“In light of the large number of documented assaults at Central Mississippi, South Mississippi, and Wilkinson, MDOC officials cannot claim ignorance of the substantial threat of violence at these facilities,” the report states.

The report was able to use security video footage to back up its findings.

In one incident at Central Mississippi, an incarcerated person died of blunt force trauma to the head following a fight. Camera footage showed an assailant attacking the victim at 3:41 a.m. CST. Several hours later, a different assailant attacked the victim.

It wasn’t until 8:45 a.m. CST that an officer learned about the victim and called for medical help. It took 20 minutes for such help to arrive, and the victim died.

“People living in prisons and jails have a constitutional right to safe and adequate living conditions,” said Benjamin C. Mizer, acting associate attorney general. “Our investigation uncovered that people in these three facilities were subjected to violent and unsafe conditions, in violation of the Constitution.”

The violence has also been sexual, according to the findings.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act manager for Central Mississippi estimated receiving 20-25 complaints per month. In one case, an individual was transferred to South Mississippi after alleging sexual assault at Central Mississippi.

Though the individual reported he had asked for protective custody because of his previous assaults, South Mississippi administrators denied his request. Administrators housed the victim in the general population with gang members and he was assaulted once again, per the report.

Gangs are a major issue in maintaining the safety of those incarcerated in the three prisons, the department found.

As of May 2022, 20 percent of the population at Central Mississippi is affiliated with a gang. Between July 2020 and November 2021, verified gang members in the South Mississippi population ranged from a high of 40 percent of the monthly population to a low of 10 percent. At Wilkinson, gang affiliation is estimated to be between 35 percent and 65 percent of the population.

The report attributes low staffing as part of the reason gangs have been able to subvert prison authority, and now they hold an “improper” amount of control. There have been times when MDOC has incarcerated people provide supervision of small, low-occupancy units because there are not enough officers.

Central Mississippi and Wilkinson have also subjected individuals to prolonged restrictive housing or solitary confinement. The unsanitary and low supervision of these cells placed the individuals at “substantial risk” of serious physical and psychological harm, the DOJ found.

“They are breeding grounds for suicide, self-inflicted injury, fires, and assaults,” according to the report.

Since 2019, there have been five suicides at Central Mississippi and Wilkinson that occurred within restrictive housing. Two of the individuals who died at the Central Mississippi facility had serious mental illnesses that made confining them to restrictive housing particularly dangerous, the report found.

“Ensuring constitutional and humane conditions of confinement in our prisons is a key part of public safety,” said Clay Joyner, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Mississippi. “By allowing physical violence, illegal gang activity, and contraband to run rampant, Mississippi not only violates the rights of people incarcerated at these facilities, but also compromises the legitimacy of law enforcement efforts to protect our communities.”

Wednesday’s findings follow an April 2022 report of conditions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which found the facility also violated the constitutional rights of the incarcerated by subjecting them to violence, failing to provide adequate care for serious mental health needs or adequate suicide prevention measures and using prolonged restrictive housing in a manner that poses a risk of serious harm.

The DOJ is now urging the facilities to engage in new hiring practices, such as establishing competitive base starting salaries and benefits packages for correctional officers as hiring incentives; banning the use of incarcerated people for security observations; and recommending that all staff who investigate sexual abuse allegations receive specialized training, which would include techniques for interviewing sexual abuse victims.

They also recommended that incarcerated persons in restrictive housing have access to medical and mental health care — especially if a prisoner begins to show signs of decompensation in solitary confinement.

“The minimum remedial measures outlined in this report create the framework for what the state must do to reasonably protect people in these facilities from violence and prevent deprivation of fundamental physical and psychological needs,” said Todd W. Gee, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi.

“Over the past four years, MDOC has worked tirelessly to increase staff through additional compensation, the development of career ladders, streamlining the hiring process, job fairs, and implementing special duty pay. We’re grateful for the often thankless work of the men and women of MDOC, and we look forward to continuing our efforts to recruit additional staff. While we disagree with the findings, we will work with the DOJ to identify possible resolutions to enhance inmate safety and continue ongoing efforts to improve operations at MDOC,” Kate Head, Government Affairs Coordinator at MDOC, said in a statement to The Hill.

Updated at 7:12 pm EST.

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