Yesterday’s news of a lawsuit being been filed on behalf of 29 inmates at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman alleging the living conditions there are “unconstitutional and inhumane,” actually surprised me. Not at the lawsuit, mind you, but how long it took someone to file one.
Since the recent rash of violence at the state prison, which has claimed five lives has made national news of late, attorneys for Roc Nation, the philanthropy arm and a hip-hop record label for famed rappers Jay-Z and Yo Gotti, have reached out to Governor Phil Bryant and Mississippi Department of Corrections Director Pelicia Hall about the abysmal conditions at the prison, however, when state leaders did nothing to improve conditions, the group filed suit.
According to lawsuit, "Plaintiffs' lives are in peril. Individuals held in Mississippi's prisons are dying because Mississippi has failed to fund its prisons, resulting in prisons where violence reigns because prisons are understaffed. In the past two weeks alone, five men incarcerated in Mississippi have died as the result of prison violence. These deaths are a direct result of Mississippi's utter disregard for the people it has incarcerated and their constitutional rights."
The state penitentiary at Parchman houses 3,252 inmates, with 1,500 of those inmates housed in Unit 29, where the majority of inmate riots, killings, and gang violence occurred earlier this month.
According to a 39-page report by the Mississippi State Department of Health in June 2019, the prison is in such disrepair and the living conditions are not suited for human – or even animal – occupancy, in my opinion.
I realize we are housing convicted felons, and we should not have to provide them five-star accommodations. However, they are still human beings, and they should have clean and safe housing and provided basic needs while under the care of the state of Mississippi. The health department inspection is based on standards of the American Correctional Association, standards to be met by all accredited correctional facilities.
In Parchman, there are cells, showers, and bathrooms with no working lights, lavatories with no hot or no cold water in some cells and no water period in others. Some have no faucet handles to turn the water on and off, and some showers have milk crates stored inside them. Mop sinks in the hallways are stopped up and flooding the floors, and there are drain towers draining into garbage cans. In Unit 29, there is raw sewage in a pipe chase.
There are cells with no mattresses, and some without electricity. Several cells have birds’ nests built inside the cell. One water fountain runs continuously and another is completely inoperable. Window screens are missing from many windows (in the Mississippi Delta where mosquitos are the size of hummingbirds) and other windows won’t open at all. It rains in several of the cells, and many of the toilets leak onto the floor or are stopped up.
In one cell, the light socket is melted into the wall. Does this not raise alarm of an electrical problem that could cause a fire?
In one of the kitchens, there is no cooler to store perishables, and butter is being stored in the storage room. There were even reports of a fly floating on water set to boil to use for cooking, and in another kitchen, an abundance of flies. One pantry stores chemicals in addition to food. Inside the cold storage area (refrigerator), shoes, inmate pants, a mop bucket and chemicals are stored. A toilet in the bathroom attached to a kitchen was leaking, and there was no hand soap available to wash with after using the bathroom.
In one bathroom, “busted up concrete” is in the entryway of a shower. In another bathroom, the water line has busted under the floor, and the ceiling is collapsing. There is also a cord on a fan in the bathroom that has been “spliced.”
These are just a few of the discrepancies in the Department of Health’s report.
The Health Department sends this report to the governor each year, and according to a report by Mississippi Today, most violations are repeated across inspection reports since 2016.
Mississippi Today went on to say that although state officials have acknowledged the facility’s poor condition, the projected budget for Mississippi Department of Corrections prisons is $36 million, 2.6 percent less than last year. And a $22.8 million request from Pelicia Hall to completely renovate Unit 29 at Parchman, the unit with the most deficiencies, was denied.
An investigation by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica, discovered that the state penitentiary at Parchman has not receive an accreditation from the American Correctional Association since 2017. Also the facility’s drinking water has violated the Safe Drinking Water Act dozens of times, and the Environmental Protection Agency has cited the prison’s sewer system for the last three years for violating the Clean Water Act.
And as for gang violence and rioting at Parchman? It is difficult to control 3,252 inmates with just 261 correction officers. The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica reported that in 2014, MDOC employed 1,591 correction officers. In 2019, they hired just 261 officers, but they had the authority to hire 512.
A 2018 PEER report stated that is costs $53.74 per day to house an inmate at a MDOC facility. For Parchman alone, that would be a cost of $174,762 per day or nearly $64 million a year. Mississippi’s prisons have a budget of just $36 million. So I guess this explains why they can’t put light bulbs in two-thirds of the cells there or fix plumbing problems or frightening electrical glitches.
Today, the Clarion Ledger reported that MDOC needs to find a place for 625 inmates, after some were transported to private prisons and some to Tallahatchie Correctional Facility.
In Vaiden, the Carroll Montgomery Regional Correctional Facility and other regional correctional facilities organized in 1995 are allowed by Mississippi Code to house up to 300 medium-security state inmates, like the other 15 regional jails in Mississippi. According to information provided by Carroll County Sheriff Clint Walker, if the bond issue it took to build the regional facility has not been paid off, the state will pay regional jails $40.02 per day per inmate, $29.74 for housing and $10.28 for medical costs. However, if a facility has paid off the note, it only gets $23.92 per day plus $10.28 medical.
However, by keeping occupancy full at these regional correctional facilities, it would help pay for the continued upkeep of these aging facilities and ease the burden of the taxpayers. That is the problem, though. Many of the regional correctional facilities are at maximum occupancy, even though it would cost the state less to house them there.
Vaiden’s facility currently has an inmate population of 262, while it can technically house 300, its capacity is 280 inmates. If MDOC brought Carroll Montgomery Regional Correctional Facility up to capacity with 18 additional inmates, it would save the state $357.72 per day or $128,377.80 a year.
Oh, and these regional correctional facilities like the one in Vaiden are required to be reaccredited every three years to be allowed to house any inmates. For a facility to be accredited it must pass extremely high standards to be reaccredited. So if the same deficiencies were found in multiple inspections, I suspect they would be closed down.
According to Carroll Montgomery Regional Correctional Facility’s Warden Brandon Smith, the accreditation process is so strenuous, many of these regional jails pay full time consultants to assist the facility with reaccreditation. Smith said Carroll County does employ a consultant on an as needed basis just prior to the facility’s inspection.
My question is this: How can the state penitentiary continue operating in deplorable conditions for inmates and correctional officers without proper accreditation? And if they are looking for housing for 625 inmates, why are they not going to the state’s 15 regional facilities before private prisons?