Justice Department Finds Unconstitutional Conditions at Mississippi Prison

04.25.22

Photo taken at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman shows men sleeping on the floor next to a full toilet.

The Justice Department announced last week that it uncovered unconstitutionally dangerous conditions at Mississippi State Prison at Parchman, the state’s oldest and largest prison, located on the site of a plantation where enslaved people were forced to labor.

In a 59-page report detailing the findings from its two-year investigation, federal prosecutors wrote that Mississippi “routinely violates” the constitutional rights of people incarcerated at Parchman by failing to protect them from violence and self-harm, denying them adequate mental health treatment, and subjecting them to prolonged periods in solitary confinement.

“Our investigation uncovered evidence of systemic violations that have generated a violent and unsafe environment for people incarcerated at Parchman,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, head of DOJ’s civil rights division, said in a statement.

The Justice Department found that the Mississippi Department of Corrections “allows widespread violence to occur at Parchman” through its lack of staffing, poor supervision, untimely response to serious incidents, inadequate investigations, and other failures.

Investigators identified at least 10 known homicides since 2019, including three in a single week in January 2020 “where one incarcerated person suffered 89 stab wounds, a second incarcerated person similarly suffered 75 stab wounds, and a third incarcerated individual died from strangulation.”

Staff are so unresponsive that it took over three hours to discover that a man had been stabbed to death in a shower area, the report found, and people who have been attacked and stabbed have set fires in their own cell and punched an officer in desperate attempts to get medical attention.

The prison’s lack of mental health treatment, failure to take adequate suicide prevention measures, and overreliance on solitary confinement has contributed to 12 deaths by suicide in the past three years, investigators found.

All 12 occurred in restrictive housing, where incarcerated people are held for months and even years in dilapidated, crumbling buildings with collapsing ceilings and holes in the walls and floors. DOJ found that people are locked down in dark cells with no lights, working toilets, or clean water, and temperatures that often reached over 100 degrees and climbed as high as 145.1 degrees.

The Justice Department concluded that the “severe, systemic” conditions at Parchman are exacerbated by chronically deficient staffing and supervision.

“[P]ersonnel is an issue that we need to continue to improve,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves acknowledged, while also noting that his state is one of the poorest in the country.

But investigators concluded that the problems could not be blamed wholly on lack of resources. Poor management of the complex, stemming from a lack of accountability and effective supervision, also contributed to the violent and squalid conditions at Parchman, they wrote.

The Justice Department observed that state officials failed to act despite knowing about these conditions for years. Their “deliberate indifference” in the face of widespread reports about unlivable and unsanitary conditions, rising numbers of violent murders and suicides, dangerously low staffing levels, and mounting concerns that gangs were filling the void contributed to an outbreak of violence on December 31, 2019, that continued for weeks.

Even though prison officials knew about these crises, the report explains, “records show a staff that was caught off guard, utterly overwhelmed and ultimately unable to adequately and quickly respond to fighting and significant injuries in multiple buildings.”

The Justice Department’s investigation of conditions at Parchman and three other Mississippi prisons began in February 2020. Ms. Clarke said her department’s investigations at the Southern Mississippi Correctional Institute, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, and the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility are ongoing.

The department is also looking into reports of abuse and neglect at prisons in Georgia and five detention facilities for juveniles in Texas, according to The New York Times.

Federal prosecutors can sue the state if it fails to remedy the unconstitutional conditions at Parchman, but Ms. Clarke said she believes state officials will work with the department to address the problems.

The Justice Department made similar findings about unconstitutional conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men in 2019, but when Alabama’s Department of Corrections failed or refused to correct conditions, federal prosecutors filed a civil rights lawsuit against the state in December 2020.