DOJ finally agrees to investigate conditions in Mississippi prisons after 15 inmate deaths
Somewhere around the 15th inmate's death, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division announced Wednesday it will investigate conditions at four Mississippi prisons. Investigators promise to examine conditions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman), Southern Mississippi Correctional Institute, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, and the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility. “The investigation will focus on whether the Mississippi Department of Corrections adequately protects prisoners from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners at the four prisons, as well as whether there is adequate suicide prevention, including adequate mental health care and appropriate use of isolation, at Parchman,” officials said in a news release.
The investigation follows calls from activists nationwide and a lawsuit rap icon Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter launched against the Mississippi Department of Corrections following the deaths of five inmates within two weeks. “These deaths are a direct result of Mississippi’s utter disregard for the people it has incarcerated and their constitutional rights,” Carter’s attorney Alex Spiro told reporters. Attorneys detail each brutal death in the lawsuit. “Walter Gates, an inmate of Unit 29E at Parchman was stabbed multiple times the night of New Year’s Eve, and pronounced dead just after midnight,” lawyers said in the suit. “Roosevelt Holliman was stabbed to death in a fight the next day. And Denorris Howell, an inmate of Unit 291 at Parchman was stabbed multiple times and pronounced dead the day after that.”
In the latest inmate death, 39-year-old Jesus Garcia was found unresponsive in his cell Saturday at Wilkinson County Correctional Facility and later pronounced dead, according to USA Today. Although the cause and manner of death are under investigation, prison officials told the news source there were no blatant signs of assault. Activists contend the problem with Mississippi prisons reaches far wider than individual inmates in specific areas.
Civil rights groups and nonprofits penned a 23-page letter to Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband last month asking the Department of Justice to investigate "widespread, systemic, inarguably ‘egregious [and] flagrant’ violations of the civil rights of the nearly 20,000 men and women incarcerated by the state of Mississippi.” “In the last five years, Mississippi’s spending on its correctional system has fallen dramatically,” activists said in the letter. “Since 2014, spending on MDOC has declined $185 million. The state has functionally divested from its correctional system, with deadly consequences for the individuals who live and work within that system.” Representatives in the civil rights fight said between 2001 and 2014, about 51 inmates in Mississippi Department of Corrections custody died each year, averaging about four deaths a month, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“The risk of violence and injury from rampant over incarceration and understaffing is not limited to incarcerated individuals but extends to officers and staff as well,” activists said in their letter. They cited an incident at the Marshall County Correctional Facility in April 2019, in which someone shot footage on a contraband cellphone of prisoners beating a guard, later left with no medical care for several minutes. “Mississippi has acknowledged the danger presented by severe understaffing and horrific conditions, but has repeatedly failed to take appropriate action notwithstanding advocacy, litigation, and the pleas of those incarcerated and those who work in Mississippi’s prisons,” activists said in the letter.
By the miracle of a celebrity’s call to action and an election year, however, officials are finally deciding to investigate, and look who Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves is thanking for the miracle. “We are grateful that President Trump’s administration has taken a focused interest in criminal justice reform and that they care enough about Mississippi to engage on this critical issue,” Renae Eze, a spokeswoman for Reeves told The New York Times. “As we continue our own investigations, we look forward to cooperating with them and working together to right this ship.”