(CN) — The Department of Justice on Wednesday announced that its two-year investigation into the Mississippi State Penitentiary uncovered a pattern of “severe, systemic” problems that resulted in at least 10 inmate deaths.
“We have concluded that the conditions at parchment are severe, systemic and exacerbated by chronic deficiencies and staffing and supervision, which has resulted in serious harm and a substantial risk of serious harm to people confined at the prison,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke told reporters during a press call regarding the probe on Wednesday.
Clarke, who leads the DOJ Civil Rights Division, said the state’s oldest penitentiary, also known as Parchman, is wrought with a pattern or practice of violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
After all five of Mississippi’s state-run prisons went into lockdown following a dayslong riot that left five dead at Parchman in January 2020, the Department of Justice decided to step in and launch a pattern or practice probe into conditions at the facility, as well as three others in the state.
Investigators found “widespread, largely unchecked” violence between inmates at Parchman, due in part to “barebones” staff whose inadequate security measures allow inmates “unfettered access to contraband” and uncontrolled gang activity.
“These systemic failures result in an environment rife with weapons, drugs, gang violence, and extortion,” the 59-page report states.
Investigators confirmed at least four inmate homicides at the prison in 2019 and at least six in 2020, three of which occurred in a single week where one inmate suffered 89 stab wounds, another suffered 75 stab wounds and a third died from strangulation.
More than 100 assaults between inmates were documented between 2018 through May 2020, approximately 25% of which involved stabbings. Based on the lack of supervision at Parchman, the department says there are likely many more undocumented assaults.
But what’s most troubling, according to the department, is that when it requested the investigative reports that should have been filed for each of the 100 assaults there were documented — Parchman staff only gave them 24.
And the investigative reviews of inmate-on-inmate violence that were provided are described in the report as cursory evaluations that, “at best merely document what reportedly happened without identifying underlying causes and corrective action.”
Inmates are also attacking staff, whose “fears are well-founded,” according to the report. More than 30 assaults on staff were recorded between January 2018 through May 2020, which investigators say “confirms that Parchman is a dangerous facility for staff as well as incarcerated persons.”
Investigators determined that staff do not regularly walk through housing units for security patrols and they “almost exclusively” supervise units from watch towers, which means they cannot “fully observe” the unit.
One supervisory officer told investigators that staff sometimes “turn their back” to violence among inmates and several supervisory officers said the insufficient staff coverage causes officers to feel unsafe.
The lack of oversight also creates an “authority vacuum,” in which inmates, rather than staff, control the day-to-day operations of the prison units, according to the report.
“As evidence of this absence of authority, persons confined to Parchman have openly defied contraband restrictions, posting photos of themselves on social media, or posting photos and videos of decrepit conditions in a cry for help,” investigators wrote.
Between December 2019 and May 2020, Parchman staff reportedly discovered 630 cell phones, 555 shanks and nearly 350 pounds of tobacco had been illegally smuggled into the facility.
Multiple supervisory staff told investigators that corrupt staff are part of the contraband problem, one of whom characterized “compromised” staff as a “consistent problem.”
The report cites an instance in March 2019, in which a lieutenant was caught trying to smuggle contraband into the prison, including more than 100 cellphones, tobacco, Spice, pills, MDMA, marijuana and methamphetamine. Another officer, who is a cousin of a Parchman inmate, allegedly recruited the lieutenant to move the contraband.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections has reportedly known about the issues for years but failed to take any action due to issues with accountability or quality assurance measures.
“Overall, MDOC appears to tolerate large amounts of dangerous contraband as part of prison life,” according to the report.
Investigators also determined that suicide prevention training is “uneven, disjointed, and grossly inadequate at best, and non-existent at worst.”
And the majority of inmates currently being held in solitary confinement have been confined to their cell for 23 hours a day for more than a year.
The restrictive housing units they reside in are described as crumbling structures with leaking water, holes in the walls and floors, inoperable showers, pervasive mold and broken exhaust fans that contribute to extreme heat. At one point, temperatures in one of the restrictive units reportedly hit 145 degrees.
“We found the conditions in solitary confinement pose a substantial risk of serious harm from psychological deterioration for those held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time,” Clarke said.
The report concluded that the Mississippi Department of Corrections violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments by failing to “protect incarcerated persons from violence; provide adequate mental health care; implement adequate suicide prevention measures; and avoid prolonged use of restrictive housing under harsh environmental conditions and with deliberate indifference to incarcerated individuals’ serious medical and mental health needs.”
The Department of Justice laid out a number of remedial measures for the corrections department to undertake, including conducting a review to determine necessary sufficient staff levels, appointing a Chief Interdiction Officer to prevent contraband and ramping up security measures by installing more cameras and metal detectors.
If the DOJ is not satisfied with the correctional department’s response, Attorney General Merrick Garland can file a lawsuit within 49 days.
Parchman’s average daily population decreased from 3,255 inmates in December 2019 to 2,929 in January 2020 and the current population is 1,989, according to the report.
Investigators are still reviewing conditions at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.
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