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Justice Department finds "severe, systemic" problems in Mississippi prison

Jackson, Mississippi — A Mississippi prison violated inmates' constitutional rights by failing to protect them from violence, failing to meet their mental health needs, failing to take adequate steps for suicide prevention and by relying too much on prolonged solitary confinement, the Justice Department said Wednesday.

The department released findings of its two-year investigation of the state's oldest prison, Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. The probe started after an outburst of violence in late 2019 and early 2020.

"The problems at Parchman are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision," the department said in its report.

It said the Mississippi Department of Corrections "has been on notice of these deficiencies for years and failed to take reasonable measures to address the violations, due in part to non-functional accountability or quality assurance measures."

"Years of MDOC's deliberate indifference has resulted in serious harm and a substantial risk of serious harm to persons confined at Parchman," the department said.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said 10 homicides and 12 suicides have occurred among inmates at Parchman since 2019.

The department said it found "gross understaffing" and "uncontrolled gang activity." It also found that insufficient security gave inmates "unfettered access to contraband."

Mississippi Execution
Traffic leaves the front gate to the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi, on Wednesday, November 17, 2021. Rogelio V. Solis / AP

Clarke said Mississippi officials cooperated with the investigation, and the Justice Department and the state will work on steps to resolve the problems.

"This marks the first time the Justice Department has concluded that a prison's use of solitary confinement violates the constitutional rights of people without serious mental illness," Clarke said in a conference call announcing the findings.

More than 150 inmates filed a federal lawsuit in 2020 over their treatment in Parchman, saying they were denied adequate medical and mental health care, fed contaminated food and retaliated against for speaking with their attorneys. 

The Justice Department has investigated prison conditions in recent years in other states, including Alabama, Texas, South Carolina and Georgia.

The department is continuing to investigate conditions at three other Mississippi prisons — South Mississippi Correctional Institution, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.

Violence has been a longstanding problem in Mississippi prisons, where many jobs for guards are unfilled. Officials with the state Department of Corrections said for years that it is difficult to find people to work as guards because of low pay, long hours and dangerous conditions. The pay has increased during the past two years.

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