(CN) – Murders, suicides, riots, escapes and substandard living conditions are just a few of the issues in the Mississippi prison system that prompted the federal government to step in.
The Justice Department said Wednesday it is investigating conditions in four Mississippi state prisons. The announcement comes amid recent headline-making incidents, public outcry for reform and a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners last month.
The probe will focus on the Mississippi State Penitentiary – also known as Parchman, one of the oldest and notorious correctional facilities in the state – as well as the South Mississippi Correctional Institution, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.
Prisoners in Mississippi are dying at an alarming rate. Fifteen inmates have died in Mississippi Department of Corrections, or MDOC, facilities in the last two months.
Terrandance Dobbins, 40, died on Dec. 29 at South Mississippi Correctional Institution, as a result of what MDOC called a “major disturbance” that prompted a statewide prison lockdown.
Nine inmates have died recently at Parchman, two of which were suicides by hanging. Others have been stabbed to death in what have been called gang-related riots. Two inmates at Parchman also escaped and were recaptured after a massive manhunt.
Jesus Garcia, 39, was found dead in his cell at Wilkinson County Correctional Facility on Saturday, with the cause of death still unknown. In addition, an inmate-on-inmate assault occurred at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility earlier this week and is under investigation by MDOC.
Reports from relatives of inmates and leaked video from contraband cellphones have chronicled unsafe and unsanitary conditions within the prisons, such as broken toilets, rodent infestations, and rampant violence with fights regularly breaking out amongst prisoners.
A lack of funding, low wages and high stress jobs have also left Mississippi prisons dangerously understaffed. Without enough guards, gangs have taken over some areas of prisons, controlling the environment and in some instances inmate access to food or bedding. Vacancies in essential health care roles have also left inmates with limited access to physical and mental health programs.
Addiction and mental health issues saturate the state prison system, with an estimated 19,000 inmates struggling with addiction and few people employed to address their needs.
“Prisons and jails were never meant to be our mental health facilities for the nation, and yet that is what they have turned into,” Christine Tartaro, professor of criminal justice at Stockton University, said in an interview. “Mental health, and people in the healthcare field, are among the toughest group of professionals in corrections to hire and then retain.”
The Justice Department’s investigation will be conducted by its civil rights division’s special litigation section under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, or CRIPA.
Tartaro said that the investigation could potentially result in a settlement between the federal government and the state. Typically, a federal investigation identifies deficiencies in the correctional system and the state then attempts to fix those deficiencies, sometimes even resulting in a reallocation of state funds.
Past CRIPA investigations in other states have led to settlement agreements resulting in reforms.