Rapper Yo Gotti is calling on Mississippi's Republican governor to address the "humanitarian crisis" unfolding in prisons across the state. His plea comes a day after two inmates wereinside the state penitentiary in Parchman.
The Memphis-born rapper, whose real name is Mario Mims, took out a full-page ad in the Clarion-Ledger newspaper on Wednesday. The open letter, co-written with Team Roc, urges Governor Tate Reeves to declare a state of emergency and "put the full weight of your office and authority to protect [inmates'] basic human rights."
"We recognize that there are people incarcerated in the [Mississippi Department of Corrections] for due cause — that they may be considered a danger to society," the letter reads in part, according to a copy obtained by CBS News. "We are asking that they be able to serve their sentences as human beings and not animals."
There have been nine deaths inside the state's prisons in the last three weeks, a statistic experts call "staggering."
In response to the spike in violence, Team Roc filed a lawsuit last week against the head of the Mississippi Department of Corrections and the warden of the state penitentiary. The plaintiffs in the federal case are 29 inmates who argue that the state's prison conditions are unconstitutional.
Last year, a 154-page report released by the state detailed unsanitary and unsafe conditions, including moldy units without electricity, clean running water or mattresses.
In the letter on Wednesday, Yo Gotti and Team Roc said they've communicated with those "inside and outside of the system" and said images from inside "run counter to every lesson we've ever been taught."
"For if a goal of incarceration is rehabilitation, how can we ever hope to return these men to society when the extreme neglect and dangerous conditions under which they are subjected strips away every last bit of self-worth?"
Jordan Siev, an outside lawyer representing the inmates, characterized the situation in Mississippi as "inhumane."
"What's happening runs counter to every integral value we as Americans hold as rights guaranteed to people here," Siev told CBS News. "The system is not running properly."
The unsafe and unsanitary conditions are often cited as a result of the state's high inmate population. Mississippi has the third-highest incarceration rate of any state in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Experts warn against the high costs associated with prison populations as large as this. The federal government estimates Mississippi pays an average of $17,177 annually per inmate.
Funds are stretched to accommodate overcrowded facilities, meaning adequate pay for correctional staff often gets cut. Advocates say low salaries, coupled with the dangerous nature of the job, can leave prisons without proper oversight and with deteriorating conditions. The lawsuit alleges nearly half of Mississippi's corrections positions remain unfilled.
"Either the state runs the prison or the prisoners run it," said Martin Horn, the former Secretary of Corrections for Pennsylvania. "If there aren't enough correctional officers, then the prisoners are going to run the show. That's clearly what's happening in Mississippi."
Siev said the prison's conditions are now impacting his clients' constitutional rights further, including their access to counsel. Members of their legal team were denied access to a Mississippi prison twice this week to meet with inmates.
The lawyers were turned away Monday due to the federal holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The prison was put on lockdown Tuesday after the additional deaths. Siev calls it a "terribly tragic catch 22," claiming entry was denied based on a lack of staffing to supervise the visit.
"The ones who need assistance are being blocked by the very problems caused by the defendants," Siev added. "We need to check on the health and welfare of the clients to see how they're doing."
In a statement to CBS News, the department of corrections confirmed visitation was restricted and said any affected visitors would be able to reschedule their visits.
Horn said it's rare that inmates are prohibited from seeing lawyers while on lockdown because it creates "more animosity." However, he said a staffing shortage could be responsible for the problem.
Roc Nation's legal team said it remains optimistic the Reeves administration will work toward reform. Experts cite Reeves' announcement, just one day into his tenure, to start a national search for a new director for the department of corrections as a step in the right direction.
However, if action isn't taken soon, the problem is only expected to get worse. "This has been a long time in the making," Horn said. "While this may be the most recent, and perhaps the most serious case, this is not the only state in crisis. If anything, this should be a warning."
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