Did a Private Prison Corporation's Abuse of Inmates Spark a Deadly Riot in Mississippi?
Reprinted with permission of Colorlines.com. For more news from a racial justice perspective, sign up to receive weekly Colorlines Direct.
A Mississippi jail is on lockdown today after a Sunday night riot left one prison guard dead and as many as 20 inmates and guards injured. According to sheriff’s reports, the violence began as a gang feud and soon engulfed the privately operated facility, which holds 2,500 non-citizens incarcerated for reentering the United States after deportation and for other charges. But the fragments of information that have emerged from inmates and advocates suggest that the violence had more to do with a pattern of abuse and neglect that has emerged at privately run, for-profit prisons.
The Adams County sheriff’s office and the Corrections Corporation of America, the behemoth prison company that operates the facility for the federal Bureau of Prisons, have tightly controlled news of the riot and what caused it. In statements, officials say the violence emerged out of thin air and soon “turned into a mob mentality,” according to Adams County Sheriff Chuck Mayfield.
“This could have happened anywhere, anytime,” Mayfield told the Associated Press.
Prison watchdogs say that’s not necessarily true. What little independent information that has emerged from inside Adams County Correctional Center suggests a different story—one of mistreatment and abuse at the hands of guards that may have reached a breaking point.
At 5 p.m. on Sunday evening, an inmate reportedly phoned a local TV station with a cell phone, sending photos to confirm that he was indeed held inside the facility.
“They always beat us and hit us,” the prisoner told the local reporter. “We just pay them back. We’re trying to get better food, medical (care), programs, clothes, and we’re trying to get some respect from the officers and lieutenants.”
According to the news report, the prisoner said that nine guards had been taken hostage.
In an interview with Colorlines.com, Patricia Ice, who directs the legal program at the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, said that her organization has heard reports of neglect and abuse inside the Adams County facility. Ice said she received a call last month from a California woman who reported medical neglect of a family member in the jail.
“I got a complaint from a family member saying that a man had lung cancer and was being ignored,” Ice said. “Three weeks earlier, he was examined by a doctor and diagnosed with lung cancer but had not received any treatment at all.”
Prisoners' rights advocates say that the accounts of these inmates are consistent with documented conditions in private prison facilities around the country.
“Private prisons have a financial incentive to spend as little as possible in order to make a greater profit,” said Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership. Libal is a longtime advocate for the rights of prisoners held in private facilities. “They skimp on staff salaries and training, which leads to high turnover rates. They spend as little as possible on services in order to maximize profit. This mentality leads to poorly run facilities where abuse, neglect and prisoner uprisings are common.”
The Corrections Corporation of America operates over 60 jails and detention centers in 20 states with the capacity to hold over 90,000 people. The facilities have a track record of violence.
The Associated Press reports:
In 2004, inmates at a different CCA prison in Mississippi set fire to mattresses, clothing and a portable toilet. No injuries were reported. The company announced after that disturbance that it would add about 25 guards at the Tallahatchie County facility.
In Idaho, violence at a CCA-run prison has prompted federal lawsuits, public scrutiny and increased state oversight. In 2010, Vermont inmates being held at a CCA prison in Tennessee were subdued with chemical grenades after refusing to return to their cells.
Reports of medical neglect inside Corrections Corp. facilities have piled up in recent years. The New York Times reported in 2010 that federal immigration officials attempted to cover up numerous neglect-related deaths inside CCA jails, which hold immigration detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as thousands of Bureau of Prisons inmates incarcerated on immigration-related charges like “illegal reentry.”
In increasing numbers, the federal government now prosecutes border crossers who previously would have been quickly deported.
Patricia Ice said the man whose family member called her is serving a three-year sentence for illegal reentry. Ice told Colorlines.com, “I did try to contact to the jail and I never got anybody on the phone. There was nothing I could do.”
An ACLU spokesperson wrote in an email that the organization is “engaged in an investigation of a handful of privately run facilities in Mississippi,” including a CCA facility.
“[C]onditions of confinement are often woefully inadequate and levels of violence can be higher at for-profit facilities,” an ACLU statement said.
Catlin Carithers, 24, had worked in the prison since 2009. He died from blunt head trauma, according to the county coroner.
By yesterday afternoon, news reports said all of the 2,500 inmates in the jail were locked inside their cells as officials investigate the guard’s death and identify the perpetrator. Federal and local authorities are working with Corrections Corp. to investigate the violence. The sheriff’s office told the Natchez Democrat that it is on standby waiting for word from the FBI on how to proceed.