Rights groups call for federal inquiry into Mississippi prisons

The move comes after five inmates were killed in 10 days of violence in a prison system long dogged by understaffing.

Central Mississippi Correctional Facility
Prisoner advocates are calling for a federal investigation into the Mississippi state prison system, following the most recent spate of violence. [File: Rogelio V Solis/The Associated Press]

Prisoner advocates in the United States are calling for a federal investigation into the state of Mississippi’s beleaguered prison system for possible civil rights violations, saying a recent spate of violence highlights deliberate violations of inmates’ constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Advocacy groups and media reports have detailed alleged abuses, including inhumane conditions, woefully understaffed facilities and neglect that have allowed gang violence to flourish in Mississippi prisons for years, but the most recent incidents, which include widespread rioting and five deaths at three facilities in 10 days, have again put the state’s prison system under the spotlight. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as other rights groups, sent a letter Tuesday requesting the investigation to the US Department of Justice.

The letter warns that “it is no exaggeration to say more lives will be lost absent immediate intervention.”

“The Mississippi prison system is in a state of acute and undeniable crises, with five deaths in just the last 10 days, and a history of preventable deaths and injuries stretching back years,” the 18-page complaint states. “Mississippi has acknowledged the danger presented by severe understaffing and horrific conditions, but has repeatedly failed to take appropriate action.”

The letter was also signed by US Representative Bennie Thompson, Mississippi’s only Democrat in Congress. 

Mississippi prison officials, who were forced to call in state troopers and a special team of prison guards from Tennessee to help regain control during the most recent wave of violence, have said four of the five deaths are related to fighting between gangs.

The letter accuses outgoing Governor Phil Bryant and incoming Governor Reeves of” trying to shift blame” to prisoners by focusing on gangs instead of accepting that officials are to blame for the violence.

Bryant said on Monday he would welcome a federal investigation into prisons, but said federal officials should also investigate criminals and gangs in the state’s crime-challenged capital city of Jackson and across the state.

Renewed attention on Mississippi’s prisons

The most recent rioting and deaths have focused attention on a prison system that, by its own record-keeping, fills only about half its guard posts.

A series of investigations by Pro Publica and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting published last year found that a 2014 sentencing reform law aimed at reducing the prison population in the state had done little to fix the issues of underfunding and neglect. 

Prison leaders are currently seeking tens of millions in additional funding to hire another 800 guards, but legislators have instead recommended a cut in operating funds for the three state-operated prisons, according to The Associated Press news agency.

The legislators also recommended spending the same amount as last year on three private prisons and 15 county-run facilities that hold state inmates.


Prison officials are also seeking money to renovate a decrepit maximum-security cell block at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman that was shuttered in 2010 as part of a settlement after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the prison system, according to the Clarion-Ledger. 

In response to the most recent violence, prison officials have reopened that unit, the newspaper reported, prompting further allegations of inhumane conditions. 

Photos and videos posted on social media purport to show mould on the walls, non-working plumbing, and standing water on the floors, the newspaper reported. Another photo allegedly shows six inmates sleeping in a small cell with a single bed – five on the floor. 

The letter that will be delivered to the Department of Justice on Tuesday cites the increasing number of deaths in state prisons in recent years, jumping from an average of 51 deaths a year from 2001 through 2014 to 85 deaths in the fiscal year 2018 and 80 deaths the following fiscal year. Those numbers include all, not just violent, deaths in custody. 

The most recent violence is “directly linked to acute understaffing” and that funding has declined, the letter charged. 

“The state has functionally divested from its correctional system, with deadly consequences for the individuals who live and work within that system,” the letter said. 

Alabama as example

The Justice Department had previously censured Alabama for” egregious” and”dangerous” understaffing at a time when Alabama had more prison guards per prisoner than Mississippi, the letter notes. A three-year federal investigation of Alabama’s prisons concluded in April with a damning federal report and the threat of a federal lawsuit.


The low number of staff in Mississippi prisons makes it impossible for guards to manage, the letter continues, noting that gang control and inmate-on-inmate violence “is the predictable and preventable result of abdication of control of the facility”.

In sworn statements to the SPLC, inmates at South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville said that gangs assign inmates to cells and beds, control access to phones, determine where and when people may eat and shower, fine people who break gang-written rules and even conduct their own strip searches to locate stolen contraband, the letter said.

The letter also claims extended lockdowns may violate inmates’ constitutional rights by leaving inmates “in conditions amounting to solitary confinement without access to basic privileges including recreation, showers, and visitation”. The prison in Leakesville was on lockdown for almost all of 2019, citing a “severe shortage of correctional officers”, with Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall saying in a January 2019 release that “we are operating in a pressure cooker type situation right now.” 

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies

More from News
Most Read