The U.S. Justice Department has begun a civil rights investigation into the conditions in four Mississippi prisons after 15 inmate successive deaths since Dec. 29, the agency announced Wednesday. The state’s corrections system has garnered more public attention after a series of prison riots and other dysfunction that left five prisoners dead within a week.
Conditions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman), South Mississippi Correctional Institute, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF), and the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility will all be probed to find out what is behind the cluster of prison deaths. The inquiry will be aimed at whether or not the Mississippi Department of Corrections does a satisfactory job of providing protection for inmates from harm from other prisoners and also suicide prevention and proper mental health care. Use of isolation at Parchman will also be investigated.
Activists have cited a range of reasons for the rash of deaths from gang violence to suicides to natural causes for the deaths along with inhumane living circumstances and a lack of funding and staff shortages.
In January, a federal lawsuit was filed by rapper Yo Gotti and Team Roc, the charitable arm of Jay-Z’s entertainment company, Roc Nation on behalf of 29 inmates accusing MDOC officials of keeping inmates in “unconstitutional” circumstances.
"Plaintiffs' lives are in peril," the lawsuit says, according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "Individuals held in Mississippi's prisons are dying because Mississippi has failed to fund its prisons, resulting in prisons where violence reigns because prisons are understaffed. In the past two weeks alone, five men incarcerated in Mississippi have died as the result of prison violence. These deaths are a direct result of Mississippi's utter disregard for the people it has incarcerated and their constitutional rights."
The lawsuit says the conditions violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” It particularly singles out Parchman, noting that “the units are subject to flooding. Black mold festers. Rats and mice infest the prison. Units lack running water and electricity for days at a time.”
Yo Gotti and Jay-Z penned a letter to then-Gov. Phil Bryant and former MDOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall (who has since resigned to take a private sector job) in January in protest of the conditions and threatening to sue. The letter states that inmates "are forced to live in squalor, with rats that crawl over them as they sleep on the floor, having been denied even a mattress for a cot."
In their latest efforts, the pair have recently reached out to current Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves. "We are writing to you today to sound the alarm as the MDOC situation is growing more dire by the minute," the letter says, according to the Clarion-Ledger. "... We are imploring you to make this a priority and to shine a spotlight upon a badly deteriorating system, to declare it an emergency and put the full weight of your office and authority to protect their basic human rights."
The Justice Department says it will conduct its own investigation under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA).
“Under CRIPA, the Department has the authority to investigate violations of prisoners’ constitutional rights that result from a ‘pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights,’ “ the DOJ statement says. “The Department has conducted CRIPA investigations of many correctional systems, and where violations have been found, the resulting settlement agreements have led to important reforms.”
Yo Gotti, in a statement to CBS News said he was satisfied that the investigation will be conducted, but the lawsuit will move forward.
"We're hopeful their findings will lead to statewide reforms to these facilities,” said Gotti, whose real name is Mario Mims. “However, until we receive tangible commitments to shut these prisons down and move inmates to safer facilities, we will proceed with our lawsuit."
(Photo by: Giles Clarke/Getty Images)