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After Deadly Week For Mississippi Prisoners, Advocates See Blood ‘On The Hands’ of Lawmakers and Prison Officials

The violence that has left at least five people dead is the result of longstanding issues that have been ignored, justice advocates and prisoners’ family members say.

The Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi.Roger Smith/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The violence in Mississippi’s prisons that has left at least five people dead and spurred a lockdown across the state is the product of longstanding issues in the state’s prisons that have been unaddressed by lawmakers and prison officials, justice advocates and prisoners’ family members say.

“What’s happening in the Mississippi prison system right now is the totally foreseeable and therefore also preventable result of chronic understaffing, underpaying corrections officers, and the failure to protect incarcerated individuals from harm and abominable conditions,” Lisa Graybill, the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Appeal. 

“They have had these men living in inhumane conditions and treated worse than animals and when they are treated as if their life doesn’t matter how can anyone expect them to have consideration for another person’s life?” Ashley Lukens, who runs a support group for prisoners’ families, told The Appeal. “This blood is on the hands of MDOC and the other elected officials.”

The rash of deaths began on Dec. 29, when 40-year-old Terradance Dobbins was killed during what the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) has called a “major disturbance” at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution. On Dec. 31, MDOC announced it had put all state facilities on lockdown. 

Then just past midnight last Wednesday, Walter Gates, 25, was pronounced dead from stab wounds at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Parchman Farm, Sunflower County Coroner Heather Burton said in a news release. On Thursday, Burton said she was told that Roosevelt Holliman, 32, had died in Parchman’s hospital. She said he had been stabbed multiple times. Also on Thursday, Gregory Emary, 26, was killed during a fight at the Chickasaw County Regional Correctional Facility. 

And on Friday, Parchman prisoner Denoris Howell was the fifth person to die in just six days after being “involved in an altercation with his cellmate,” said Burton. He died from a neck injury and was found in a dark, “chaotic environment” with “vast amounts of blood,” she added. 

The killings were unprecedented by MDOC standards—between 2014 and 2018, an average of 3.4 prisoner deaths are ruled homicides each year, according to the Clarion Ledger. 

MDOC did not answer questions from The Appeal about how many people have been injured as a result of the violence.  

Over the course of the lockdown, prisoners shared photos and videos from inside the facilities. One depicted a graphic scene of bloodied men while another showed a fire lit within the Parchman facility. According to Mississippi Today, approximately 100 officers from the Mississippi Highway Patrol and the sheriff’s offices in Sunflower, Tallahatchie, Bolivar and Washington counties were sent to Parchman in an attempt to control the situation. Technology known as cell phone jammers was also deployed to block phone signals.

On Saturday, the MDOC announced on Twitter that two Parchman prisoners had escaped while on lockdown. As of Monday, both had been taken back into custody. 

Sources told The Appeal that the violence had stopped and some Parchman prisoners were moved to an area of the prison known as Unit 32, which has been closed for a decade as part of a settlement between the American Civil Liberties Union and the MDOC over unconstitutional conditions. “Unit 32, at a certain point, could not be reformed,” ACLU National Prison Project attorney Margaret Winter said at the time. “It is truly a wretched place.” A photograph shared with The Appeal appeared to show five men sleeping on a cell floor in what is believed to be the unit. 

MDOC spokesperson Grace Fisher did not answer questions from The Appeal. On Friday, the agency released a statement from Commissioner Pelicia Hall confirming the five deaths across the state and a small fire at Parchman. “I understand the public’s right and need to know,” it read. “But my department will not rush to release information for the sake of perpetuating rumors. Contrary to what is being said, we are providing information.” 

She added that investigators had determined that some of the violence was gang related.

Two sources with knowledge of the situation told The Appeal that prison officials had failed to keep rival gangs separate within facilities. It’s an issue that has been well-documented. At the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, a private prison, an investigation by The Marshall Project found that its warden had relied on gangs to keep it under control. The MDOC has denied the allegation. And an investigation into the South Mississippi Correctional Institution by ProPublica and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting found that severe staffing shortages have meant that gangs are left to run the prison. 

Along with the MDOC’s inability to hire and retain guards (salaries start at roughly $25,650 per year, among the lowest in the country), the state’s prison crisis has been attributed to crumbling facilities that expose people to unsafe environments and harsh laws that lead to over-incarceration. Mississippi has the third-highest imprisonment rate in the country, behind Oklahoma and Louisiana. 

“The long-term solution is that we’ve gotta come up with some ways to do significant reform so that we cut down on the number of people who are incarcerated,” state Senator John Horhn told WJTV. “We give them the kinds of tools that they need to become productive citizens.”

Deaths in MDOC custody have climbed approximately 40 percent in recent years, from 62 in fiscal year 2014 to 85 in fiscal year 2018 and 78 in fiscal year 2019. 

Despite the increase, there has been limited movement from lawmakers to introduce changes to the state’s prison system. For years, the legislature has denied Commissioner Hall’s requests for increased funding for corrections officers salaries. Hall announced in December that she would be leaving her post this month. 

State Senator Derrick Simmons, a member of the corrections committee, told The Appeal that he has received a flood of calls from people concerned about their incarcerated loved ones. He said he hopes the recent events will influence the legislature to introduce changes to the MDOC.

“I look forward to working with the new commissioner on how we can improve upon safety at the agency because the inmates certainly have a right to be safe while they pay their debts to society,” he said. 

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Southern Poverty Center, the ACLU of Mississippi, and other advocacy leaders asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate what they say are the “systemic, inarguably ‘egregious and flagrant’” civil rights violations in Mississippi’s prisons. FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) made two similar requests last year.

A spokesperson for Governor Phil Bryant did not return requests for comment from The Appeal, but on Sunday he tweeted, “Mississippi must invest in its prison system and the men and women who work there.” Bryant, who has served two terms, will be replaced by Lt. Governor Tate Reeves on Jan. 14.