(AP) — Mississippi authorities were searching for two prisoners believed to have escaped Saturday from one of several prisons rocked by violence that left at least five inmates dead in the past week.
Gov. Phil Bryant on Saturday said via Twitter that he has directed “the use of all necessary assets and personnel” to find the two inmates who escaped from the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.
The state Department of Public Safety has deployed state troopers and the highway patrol’s special operations group to help the Department of Corrections find the two inmates and to help restore order at the troubled prison from which they escaped, Bryant said.
The Corrections Department said in a Facebook post that David May, 42, and Dillion Williams, 27, were discovered missing from Parchman during an “emergency count” at about 1:45 a.m. May is serving a life sentence for two aggravated assault convictions in Harrison County, and Williams is serving a 40-year sentence for residential burglary and aggravated assault in Marshall County.
The department said via Twitter Saturday afternoon that there were no major disturbances at Parchman.
“There was a minor fire at Unit 30 earlier this week. That fire, set by an inmate, was immediately extinguished. Like other facilities in the prison system, the prison has limited movement,” the department tweeted.
Five inmates have died in prison violence since Sunday, Dec. 29; three of those deaths were at Parchman. The prison is a series of cell blocks scattered across thousands of acres of farmland in Mississippi’s Delta region. Inmates who escape from their cells sometimes don’t make it off the property.
Mississippi’s outgoing prisons chief said Friday that four of the five recent killings of inmates stem from gang violence, as guards struggle to maintain control of restive inmates.
Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall said the department won’t confirm the names of the gangs “for security purposes,” but relatives of inmates who spoke to The Associated Press and other news outlets said there’s an ongoing confrontation between the Vice Lords and Black Gangster Disciples.
It wouldn’t be the first time the two gangs have warred behind bars in Mississippi, with previous confrontations at Parchman and other prisons over the past 15 years. A 2015 survey found nearly 3,000 Black Gangster Disciple members and nearly 2,000 Vice Lords in prisons statewide.
“These are trying times for the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” Hall said Friday.
All state prisons statewide remained locked down Saturday, Bryant said, with inmates confined to cells, and no visitors allowed.
The first of five inmates identified as dying was Terrandance Dobbins, 40, who died Sunday at the South Mississippi Correctional Institute in Leakesville. Two days later, Walter Gates, 25, was stabbed and several other inmates were injured at Parchman during a fight that spread to multiple units of the sprawling prison. Then on Thursday, Gregory Emary, 26, was killed at the Chickasaw County Regional Correctional Facility, a county-run jail that holds state inmates. Also Thursday, 32-year-old Roosevelt Holliman was fatally stabbed at Parchman in a fracas that led to multiple injuries. Before dawn Friday, Denorris Howell, 36, was found dead in his cell at Parchman.
Corrections officials have repeatedly refused to answer questions about how many people have been injured, or whether there have been other violent incidents in prisons.
Mississippi’s prison system has struggled to fill guard vacancies, with Hall saying it’s difficult to attract people with salaries that start below $25,000 a year. Some guards end up bringing illegal drugs and cellphones into prisons. Criminal charges were filed in 2014 against 26 state correctional officers.
Some prisons, including South Mississippi, have areas where many prisoners are housed in bunks in one large room, instead of individual cells. This can lead to security problems. South Mississippi, in Greene County, was locked down for almost all of 2019, in part because of guard shortages.
The violence came even as U.S. District Judge William Barbour ruled Tuesday that while conditions may have been poor at East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Meridian, there’s no longer any evidence that the privately run prison is violating inmates’ rights.
Hall said Tuesday that she will resign in mid-January to take a private sector job, signaling that incoming Gov. Tate Reeves won’t retain her upon taking office Jan. 14.