Mississippi's violent prisons violating Constitution, US Justice Department finds

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) - Mississippi is violating the constitutional rights of thousands of people held in three of its prisons, where violence is pervasive and the use of solitary confinement leads to suicide and other harm, the U.S. Department of Justice said on Wednesday.

The department's Civil Rights Division said that Mississippi's understaffing of its largest prisons has created dangerous conditions, according to the published findings of an investigation opened in 2020.

"The mismatch between the size of the incarcerated population and the number of security staff means that gangs dominate much of prison life, and contraband and violence, including sexual violence, proliferate," the report said. "Prison officials rely on ineffective and overly harsh restrictive housing practices for control."

The Mississippi Department of Corrections, which cooperated with federal investigators and received an early copy of the report, did not respond to questions on Wednesday, nor did the office of Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves.

Some 7,200 people are held at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, the South Mississippi Correctional Institution, and the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, the three prisons discussed in Wednesday's report.

As part of the same investigation, the Justice Department raised similar alarm in 2022 about the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Farm.

Mississippi is violating the U.S. Constitution's 8th and 14th Amendments, which forbid cruel and unusual punishments and guarantee equal protection under the law, the Justice Department said.

It said the state's Department of Corrections was "deliberately indifferent" to the risk of violence at its prisons, despite Mississippi's efforts to increase the pay of prison guards and reduce the use of isolated confinement.

At Central, there were at least 325 reported assaults or fights between incarcerated people from September 2020 to June 2022, and dozens of people at all three prisons had to be taken to outside hospitals with serious injuries in that time, the report said.

The report also recounts people using broomsticks, mop handles, crutches, shanks, welding shop tools, boiling hot water and a microwave as weapons in fights. Rape and other sexual violence is also common, the report said.

The report described conditions in restrictive housing units as appalling, and said those held in isolation there often resorted to extreme measures to get attention from staff, including setting fires, flooding cells and cutting themselves with razors.

Among other recommendations, the report called for Mississippi to dramatically increase the number of properly screened and well-trained employees supervising its prisons, avoid the unnecessary use of solitary confinement, and improve access to health care for incarcerated people.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Aurora Ellis)