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‘It’s Just Heartbreaking’: Families Search for Answers as Death Rate Rises in Mississippi Prisons

Prison deaths in Mississippi have climbed nearly 40 percent in recent years, from 62 in fiscal year 2014 to a high of 85 in fiscal year 2018.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown

For the last 15 months, Katie Nelson has sought to explain to her niece and nephew how their 36-year-old father, Willie Hollinghead, wound up dead in a Mississippi prison. Since she received news of her brother’s death on Aug. 4, 2018, answers have been sparse, if not nonexistent. On his death certificate, Hollinghead’s cause of death is listed as “undetermined.”  

“There’s got to be some kind of cause of death,” Nelson told The Appeal. “He didn’t just fall over dead.”  

Hollinghead’s death was one of the first of a spate of deaths in August last year—16 people died in the state’s prisons that month. It was emblematic of a larger problem across the state, where deaths in Mississippi Department of Corrections custody have climbed from 62 in fiscal year 2014 to 85 in fiscal year 2018, and 78 in 2019.    

In response to the August deaths, Corrections Department Commissioner Pelicia Hall released a statement that they were being investigated, though the majority were believed to be from natural causes and were “not out of line” with number of deaths in the previous months. More than half of the people who died, however, were under the age of 60. 

Those with knowledge of Mississippi’s three state-run prisons and three private prisons have attributed this to a lethal combination of high incarceration rates, severe understaffing, and crumbling facilities. There are approximately 12,700 people incarcerated in the state’s prisons and an additional 5,000 people spread throughout regional facilities.

Last month, Michael Anderson, 26, and Larry Walker, 28, were found dead at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm. The Department of Corrections has not released information about how the men died, only telling the media their deaths are under investigation. 

A department spokesperson did not answer requests for comment or an interview with The Appeal. 

Benjamin Salk, a senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has litigation pending against the corrections department, told The Appeal that the situation inside the state’s prisons has become indefensible. “There’s a particularly acute crisis right now,” he said. “The fact is there are too many people incarcerated throughout the entire system and the resources needed to safely do that are not being provided by the state.”

Around 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 3, a corrections officer discovered Hollinghead unconscious on the floor at the Southern Mississippi Correctional Institution (SMCI). He was taken to the infirmary where medical personnel gave him CPR and attempted to revive him with a defibrillator. Twenty minutes after he was found, an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital. Hollinghead was pronounced dead just after midnight, according to an incident report obtained by The Appeal.  

Hollinghead had been incarcerated at SMCI for the past eight months on a 10-year sentence for a drug charge. He was due for his parole hearing in October.  When Nelson called the prison to find out how he died, she said nobody could answer her questions and the warden refused to speak to her. Her family has yet to obtain the autopsy report. His death certificate reads “undetermined,” but an in-custody log of deaths listed it as a homicide, according to a Mississippi Today report. So far, no one has been charged with Hollinghead’s death.  

Hollinghead’s family members can’t afford an attorney so they have conducted their own investigation into his death. They have tried to talk to corrections officers and to people who were also incarcerated at SMCI, but have had little luck cultivating information about Hollinghead’s last moments. 

They have found several clues, however. Hollinghead’s sister-in-law, Michele Hollinghead, told the Appeal that she observed bruising around his neck and black spots on his forehead when she traveled to Jackson to retrieve his body. “We’ll never know what happened unless his autopsy is done by someone else besides the state of Mississippi and we don’t have that kind of money,” she told The Appeal. 

“I do think he was killed,” Nelson added. “Not knowing what happened to him, that’s been the hardest. Sometimes l’ll just sit and cry. … Why would somebody do something to him? Why couldn’t they tell us?”

While Mississippi’s prison population has hovered around 19,000 since 2014, deaths while in corrections department custody have steadily risen each year. Between July 2017 and July 2018, that number was 85, a 37 percent increase from 2014. Comparatively, 59 people have died in the custody of the Colorado Department of Corrections between November 2018 and November 2019, despite it having a population of 20,000. And in Kentucky, whose corrections department oversees roughly 23,650 people, there were 56 in-custody deaths in 2018, according to a spokeswoman. 

Problems with Mississippi’s correctional facilities are threefold. Due in part to its harsh sentencing laws, the state has the third-highest imprisonment rate in the country, behind Oklahoma and Louisiana. Of every 100,000 residents, 624 are incarcerated, which is 57 percent higher than the national average, according to a report this year from bipartisan criminal justice reform organization 

Making the problem worse, the Mississippi Department of Corrections has struggled to hire and retain correctional officers, resulting in soaring prisoner-to-guard ratios that lead to meager supervision and rampant violence. At SMCI, where Hollinghead died, there is one guard for every 23 prisoners, an August investigation by ProPublica and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting found. And for those who take the job, there is scant incentive to stay: Pay is among the lowest in the country, with salaries starting at roughly $25,650 per year. In a bid to increase correctional officers, Commissioner Hall has requested funding in the 2021 budget to increase salaries to around $30,000. 

Finally, the state’s prisons are crumbling, leaving prisoners and officers exposed to dangerous conditions. In June, a Mississippi State Department of Health inspector found that approximately 220 cells at the maximum-security prison, Parchman, had either no power or lights. Other problems included black mold, exposed wiring, and broken toilets. At SMCI, an inspector cited unsanitary kitchen conditions, moldy showers, and broken lights in 2017, the last year an inspection was conducted at the facility. And a 2013 SPLC class action lawsuit alleged that in East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a private prison run by Management and Training Corporation that houses prisoners with mental illness, “prisoners live in barbaric and horrific conditions and their basic human rights are violated daily.”

Salk of SPLC told The Appeal that Mississippi prisoners frequently write to him describing problems such as regular lockdowns because of inadequate staffing, poor nutrition and medical care, and collapsing buildings. 

Following the 16 deaths in August 2018, Hall requested that the FBI assist the state in its investigations. According to FBI spokesperson Brett Carr, that investigation has concluded. Its findings have yet to be released.

Last month, advocacy organization FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) requested for the second time that the Department of Justice launch an investigation into the Mississippi Department of Corrections. “We hear talk about second chances, and about redemption, but too many people are spending years in dangerous, unsafe places. Mississippi has failed to act. It’s time for the feds to step in,” Kevin Ring, FAMM’s president, said in a statement. 

The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal. 

SPLC is awaiting a ruling on its litigation. If the judge rules in its favor, East Mississippi Correctional Facility would be forced to implement changes to bring the facility up to constitutional standards. 

And for Hollinghead’s family, the holiday season is particularly difficult, especially for his 12- and 15-year-old children. “The hardest part is they still ask us questions when they see us,” said Nelson. I’m trying not to give up. I’m still trying to talk to people. They say they’ll call back and I never end up getting nowhere. It’s just heartbreaking that they don’t care.”