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Justice Department launches probe into deadly conditions at four Mississippi prisons



Sinks missing from a wall at Parchman Prison. (photo from the Mississippi Department of Health)

Story by Debbie Skipper and Jerry Mitchell, Mississippi Center For Investigative Reporting

A month after deadly riots, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has announced it is launching an investigation into four Mississippi prisons.

Justice Department investigators will look into conditions at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl — all state-run prisons — and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, operated by Management & Training Corp.

“The investigation will focus on whether the Mississippi Department of Corrections adequately protects prisoners from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners at the four prisons, as well as whether there is adequate suicide prevention, including adequate mental health care and appropriate use of isolation, at Parchman,” according to a Wednesday news release from the Justice Department.

The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica have been investigating and reporting on these conditions for more than a year.

Over the past nine months, the State Penitentiary has seen at least 16 violent deaths, joining the ranks of some of the world’s deadliest prisons per capita. Those deaths include eight suicides and eight homicides. A ninth possible homicide is still being investigated, according to the coroner and state Crime Lab.

“This is a level of violence and lethality that we associate with prisons in countries like Brazil and Honduras, not the United States,” David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

An investigation by the center and ProPublica revealed that Parchman has been the subject of neglect by state officials, who have known for years about these deteriorating conditions.

In August, MCIR and ProPublica reported that gangs exerted so much control at SMCI that they even determined where inmates slept and whether they had mattresses or not.

Inmates shared how gangs snapped their pictures with cellphones so that even if they were transferred to a different part of the prison, their photos would arrive ahead of him. Gangs also charged fees for the beds, wall phones, food, showers and much more.

Inside Mississippi’s prisons, inmates say they have little choice but to join a gang. “Most of the prison population are affiliated now,” one inmate told the center, “or else they’re victims.”

The news report quoted a top SMCI official as saying the gangs were running the prison, an accusation MDOC spokeswoman Grace Fisher denied.

In June, the Marshall Project reported on a December 2018 internal audit at Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, in which then-Warden Jody Bradley allegedly told gang leaders to “control their men” and if they failed to do so, he would place the entire unit on lockdown, confining all the inmates in the unit to their cells.

MCIR and ProPublica’s reporting was cited in a 23-page letter Jan. 7 from Mississippi’s U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson and 13 civil rights and social justice organizations to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division requesting an investigation into Mississippi prisons, noting state lawmakers have refused to implement reforms and adequately fund the prison system.

It attributed “the level of violence that pervades Mississippi’s prison system” to the acute understaffing of its prisons. MCIR and ProPublica reported that MDOC had 1,591 correctional officers in 2014, according to the State Personnel Board. That number had shrunk to 732 by the end of December.

The letter noted, “accounts of gang control at SMCI are particularly egregious and shocking: people report that gangs assign residents to cells and beds, overriding the formal MDOC assignments; control access to phones; photograph prisoners, using contraband cell phones, to create and maintain unofficial databases; determine when and where individuals may eat and shower; and enforce fines against those who break gang-written rules.”

In January 2019, MCIR asked Corrections Department officials about vacancy rates and turnover rates for correctional officers. A week later, then Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall said publicly that the Corrections Department was in a “pressure cooker” situation because of those vacancy rates, which by fall had reached 50%.

She talked with House Speaker Philip Gunn about her department’s funding needs.

“I can’t go in there and ask the House to fund that kind of money in an election year,” a state official quoted Gunn as replying. “Can’t you just lock ‘em down?”

Hundreds of Parchman inmates sit in the dark because their lights don’t work. (photo from the Mississippi Department of Health)

Gunn told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting that he doesn’t recall that specific conversation, but he noted that “every state agency asks for more money. Most of them are for raises.”

For fiscal 2021, MDOC officials have asked for $78 million in additional funding — nearly a third of it to renovate Unit 29, describing it as “unsafe for staff and inmates.” Nearly $50 million of that would go for pay raises for correctional officers.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which sets spending priorities for the state, is recommending that representatives reject that request and cut the corrections budget by $8.3 million.

Newly inaugurated Gov. Tate Reeves is asking lawmakers to keep MDOC’s budget the same, despite past cuts, current woes and his promise that correctional officers be “compensated fairly.”

His proposed budget says “more investment” may be necessary in the future, but “we do not want to blindly request an increase to achieve a vague ambition. We want to ask for targeted investment.”

“We know that there are problems in the system,” Reeves declared at a news conference. “We don’t want to hide them. We want to fix them.”

Reeves is blaming the past administration for the woes, despite the $215 million in cuts to MDOC’s budget over the past six years that he oversaw as lieutenant governor. He said lawmakers didn’t trust the leadership and questioned how the Corrections Department was spending its money.

He has asked the Department of Finance and Administration to analyze MDOC spending to “accurately determine where taxpayers’ money is currently being spent (or misspent.)”

State officials’ immediate responses to the deadly rioting have included shuffling some inmates to a long-shuttered unit lacking running water and lights, busing others classified as maximum security to a private prison holding out-of-state prisoners from Vermont, and examining the relocation of these super-max inmates to a closed private prison originally designed to house juvenile felony offenders.

Renae Eze, spokeswoman for the governor,  said in an email to the Clarion Ledger that Reeves’ office is “grateful” for the federal investigation.

“We are grateful that President Trump’s administration has taken a focused interest in criminal justice reform and that they care enough about Mississippi to engage on this critical issue. As we continue our own investigations, we look forward to cooperating with them and working together to right this ship. We welcome them to this mission. More people working together to solve it will be better than just a few,” Eze said in the email.

Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, urged the Justice Department to go beyond the four prisons to conduct a “full statewide investigation because only a systemwide solution can solve Mississippi’s severe overcrowding and understaffing problem.”

Rob McDuff, impact litigation director at the Mississippi Center for Justice, said Mississippi’s prisons are so dysfunctional they endanger the public and siphon millions from the state budget.

If the state of Mississippi will stop costing the taxpayers by housing prisoners who aren’t dangerous, McDuff said, “we can begin to move toward a more sensible prison system that is safer for prisoners, for prison staff, and for the public.”

Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center, said Mississippi imprisons more people than all but two states, but it has the 16th lowest violent crime rate.

Reform is needed, he said. “We must overcome our addiction to locking people up.”

Justice Department officials say those with relevant information can contact the department at 1-833-591-0288 or by email at [email protected].

This story is reprinted with permission from the author and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. Email Jerry Mitchell at [email protected] and follow him on Facebook at @JerryMitchellReporter and on Twitter at @jmitchellnews.


Search for two young men on the Mississippi to resume Sunday morning



(photo by Thomas Parker)

The search for the two missing young men on the Mississippi River near the LeTourneau Landing has been called off for the night and will resume at 7:30 a.m. Sunday according to Warren County Fire Coordinator Jerry Briggs.

Anyone participating in the search is asked to coordinate their efforts through the incident command which is set up south of LeTourneau Road.

Multiple agencies are assisting in the efforts to locate the missing men. Numerous items that were in the boat and the boat itself have been recovered.

The young men, Gunner Palmer, 16, from Copiah County, and Zeb Hughes, 21, of Wesson, Mississippi, went out on a boat Thursday with their dog to find a good spot for duck hunting near Davis Island. They have not been heard from since Thursday afternoon.

Sunday will mark the fourth day of search and recovery efforts.

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Silver Alert issued for Holmes County man



(photo courtesy MDPS)

The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation has issued a Silver Alert for Charlie H. Haynes Jr., 61, of Durant, Mississippi, in Holmes County.

Haynes is a black male, 6 feet tall, weighing 260 pounds with black hair and brown eyes.

He was last seen Thursday, Dec. 3, at about 8:30 a.m. in the vicinity of Park Street in Holmes County. He was wearing a blue shirt and gray pants.

Haynes is believed to be in a 2020 beige ES350 Lexus bearing Mississippi license plate HNT1037 and traveling in an unknown direction.

Family members say Haynes suffers from a medical condition that may impair his judgement. If anyone has information regarding the whereabouts of Charlie H. Haynes Jr., call the Holmes County Sheriff’s Department at 662-834-1511.

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U.S. House passes historic bill to legalize marijuana



East side of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (photo by Martin Falbisoner own-work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link)

Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed what is being hailed as an historic bill to legalize the use of marijuana in the country.

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act proposes to remove marijuana from the list in the Controlled Substances Act of 1971, which first equated pot with drugs such as heroin and LSD. It also proposes to expunge certain low-level criminal offenses, sets up a 5% sales tax on sales to reinvest in communities disproportionately affected by drug enforcement, provide for more research and other measures.

The MORE act was passed out of the House Judiciary Committee a year ago and is the first of its kind to make it to a vote on the House floor. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), was passed Friday by a vote of 228-164 along mostly party lines: 222 Democrats, five Republicans and Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian, voted in support of the bill, while 158 Republicans and six Democrats voted against it.

“Millions of Americans’ lives have been upended as a result of convictions for possessing small amounts of marijuana, and the racial disparities in conviction rates for those offenses are as shocking as they are unjust,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), said in a statement after the vote. “That’s why we passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act today.”

A 2020 analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union concluded that “Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, notwithstanding comparable usage rates.”

“In every single state, Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states, Black people were up to six, eight, or almost 10 times more likely to be arrested,” the analysis continued. “In 31 states, racial disparities were actually larger in 2018 than they were in 2010.”

Democrats in support of the law also cited the growing numbers of states legalizing both medical and recreational uses of marijuana. To date, 34 states have legalized medical marijuana, including Mississippi last month, and 11 have approved it for recreational use.

In response, critics of the bill attacked Democrats for bring the bill up during the COVID-19 pandemic and cited law-and-order arguments.

“Marijuana is one of the most abused substances on this planet,” said Rep. Greg Murphy (R-N.C.). “Yes, legalizing weed would create revenue from taxes, but at what cost? Do we then start legalizing cocaine? Marijuana is a gateway drug, make no mistake about that. It undoubtedly leads to further and much more dangerous drug use.”

It is unlikely the bill will be brought to a vote in the U.S. Senate.

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