After Inmate Deaths, Mississippi Faces Pressure To Reform Its Prisons
At the end of a workday, Cheryl Porter pulls into the gravel drive of her one-bedroom travel trailer in Brandon, Mississippi.
"I actually want to get rid of this one and get a bigger one," Porter says. "I want a two bedroom 'cause when Michael gets home, Lord willing."
Michael, her 29-year-old son, has been incarcerated since he was a teenager on several felony charges, including burglary. He's due for release in 2022.
"If he gets to come home alive," she says.
Her son was in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman when deadly riots broke out at the end of last year – the result of gang warfare, according to state officials, and accounts from inside the prison.
"It was a bloodbath," Porter says, showing cell phone images of her son's head wrapped in a bandage.
"This is where they hit him with the pipe. They stabbed him twelve times."
Since Dec. 29, more than 30 inmates have died in state custody. According to news releases from the Mississippi Department of Corrections, eight of those deaths are are attributed to prisoners attacking each other, three are apparent suicides, four are from natural causes, three are from illnesses, one is drug-related, and one is an inmate who tested positive for COVID-19. The rest are classified as unknown, pending autopsy reports, but with no foul play suspected.
The state is facing lawsuits and a federal probe into rampant violence, decrepit conditions, and a culture of neglect and corruption that has plagued Mississippi prisons for decades.
It's an incarceration crisis, says Alesha Judkins, Mississippi state director for FWD.us, a criminal justice advocacy group.
She blames chronic underfunding, and sentencing laws that have left the system overcrowded, understaffed, and in a state of disrepair.
"Because of the sheer number of people in the state's care and custody, they can't safely house or manage the population that they have," says Judkins.
The uptick in deaths has drawn national attention, along with inmates using contraband cell phones to share dramatic video from inside the lockups of stabbings and inmates setting fires. In one social media post, an inmate said no one was coming to their rescue. "We need some help man," he said. "Police won't even come in here and get us out of here, bro."
The U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation. And the rappers Jay-Z and Yo Gotti are funding a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the incarcerated — the latest in a string of lawsuits dating to the 1970's that have sought to address inhumane conditions in Mississippi prisons, some of which resulted in federal control of the system over the years.
Attorney Jordan Siev says the lawsuit alleges both civil rights and constitutional violations.
"This is simply a matter of how we treat people in jail," Siev says. "They have constitutional rights. The pictures and the stories that have come out are absolutely horrifying."
Being locked up in Mississippi is about pure survival says John Knight, a former drug dealer and gang member who's been out of prison for seven years, and now volunteers to curtail violence in his hometown of Jackson. He was first sentenced to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman when he was 18 years old.
"They still treat you like a common day slave because you have committed a crime," he says. "They're sentencing you to prison first and foremost, and then sentence you to death if you don't survive because of the deplorable conditions."
Knight is part of the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition – groups pressuring the state to address the long-documented problems.
"Brown water, bugs, rats coming out," Knight says. "Could you imagine how that would mentally mess a person up? And they expect you to act like a model citizen?"
The Mississippi Department of Corrections, or MDOC, declined to comment, and Republican Governor Tate Reeves was unavailable for an interview with NPR. But as the crisis worsened shortly after he took office in January, Reeves acknowledged problems.
"We're working to improve the conditions," he said. "In a lot of places, they're not good. There's no other word for it. They're terrible."
The state took immediate steps, including deploying maintenance crews, putting a state criminal investigator at Parchman, and requiring a warden to be on site at all times.
Initially some inmates were moved out of what was considered the worst housing unit at Parchman, and non-violent offenders were moved to other prisons. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, transfers were halted. Reeves also stopped all visitation.
"The spread within our prisons could be a worst-case scenario," he said. Since then, MDOC has reported at least one death of an inmate who tested positive for COVID-19.
Advocates are calling for high-risk inmates to be released. They say inadequate medical care and unsanitary conditions make prisoners vulnerable – especially at Parchman, where health inspections detail the lack of clean water and power in numerous cells.
But some say the inmates are responsible for conditions inside prisons.
"They're not taking care of what they were provided," says Jimmy Anthony, a retired police officer from Batesville, Mississippi.
"I understand how people are concerned about prisons and the unfair conditions," he says referring to the widely available pictures of clogged toilets, busted sinks, and holes torn in walls. "Well, if they tear the sinks out, and they pull the piping loose to make tools to kill each other, who's at fault for that?"
Anthony was shot by a suspected gang member in 1996. He's been lobbying the legislature to pass a bill that would add extra prison time for gang-related crimes, including behind bars.
"Gangs run the prisons," Anthony says. "If they wanted to take that prison, they'll take it because we're so understaffed. And of course, just like any army, there's strength in numbers."
The state has struggled to hire enough guards – about half of those jobs were open according to the 2019 annual report from the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Earlier this month, MDOC lowered the minimum age to work as a correctional officer from 21 to 19 in an effort to attract more applicants.
"We don't have enough officers to stop anything," says Jennifer White, who worked as a correctional officer at Parchman for 15 years. She says at times, there would be two officers overseeing more than 200 prisoners. And inmates took advantage of that.
"They knew we would be short of staff," she says. "That's when the assaults on officers started."
She left in 2017, after repeated attacks on the largely female staff.
"They would throw stuff on you like feces, urine, water," she says. "It became bad."
White says she had mace to protect herself. But it wasn't enough to fight back against one reported gang leader who severely injured her.
White, who has a degree in criminal justice, says she made about $25,000 a year as a lieutenant. The low pay was an issue, she says, and made it easier for inmates to bribe, or threaten some guards to smuggle in contraband.
"They bring in cell phones, all kind of stuff, drugs," she says. "Anything you want."
Corruption has also been an issue at the top. In 2015, a longtime prison commissioner, Christopher Epps, pleaded guilty to a bribery scheme involving prison contracts.
A movement has been growing to pressure the state to address the longstanding problems. At a rally outside the state capital earlier this year, protesters chanted "shut it down," in a call to close Parchman.
"Parchman is a prison farm plantation," said civil rights lawyer Jaribu Hill. "Shut it down!"
The notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman has long been a focal point for prison reform. It's a sprawling 18-thousand acre working farm in the Mississippi Delta – a former plantation converted to a prison to lease convicts after the Civil War.
"Mississippi prisons have always had a history of existing on the backs of human capital," says Democratic state representative Robert Johnson of Natchez, the minority leader in the Mississippi House.
He remembers when Parchman operated as a "teaming little city" with industries and a working farm.
"But it was a city of locked up people in chains," Johnson says. "For African-Americans in this state, it feels like a continuation of slavery."
There are no chain gangs at Parchman today. Critics say the bondage is now in the form of gang leaders and the corrupt guards who help them.
Johnson says it's a recipe for disaster.
"We don't have the personnel or the facilities to maintain a humane environment for people incarcerated," he says.
Prisons have long been on the legislative back burner when it comes to money in this poor state, says journalist Jerry Mitchell, founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.
"Over the past six years, they've cut funding over $200 million for the Department of Corrections," Mitchell says. "They're not even replacing light bulbs."
Over time, he says, that has the effect of "just pretty much everything going to hell."
That's despite warnings from former prison commissioners that without additional funding, the system faced a mounting crisis. Now it's reality, and state leaders are talking about reforms.
"We have the obligation and responsibility to, once we place people in custody, to see that they're treated fairly, humanely," says Republican Kevin Horan, chairman of the Mississippi House Corrections Committee.
Gov. Reeves has publicly acknowledged the state needs to bring its prison population to manageable levels.
"We know that there are people in prison today who do not need to be there," he said. "We want to fix that."
The question is how, and whether there's political will to address the funding issue. Reeves has said he's not looking to invest more in prisons right now.
Johnson warns if the state doesn't pay up now, it may be forced to later by federal mandate.
"What we do now in getting it fixed will be a whole lot less expensive than if we wait for the Justice Department to come in and tell us what to do," Johnson says.
Advocates fear solving the prison crisis will again be pushed aside, as the nation and the state confront the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.
Before adjourning to abide by a stay-at-home order, legislative committees were looking at reforms, including revising mandatory sentencing, adding workforce training programs, and providing transitional housing. Hundreds of inmates are eligible for parole, but can't be released because the state requires them to have a physical address to get out of prison.
Horan says since the mid-90's, the state has relied too heavily on incarceration, and not invested enough in programs with incentives for reducing time, and helping prisoners transition safely back into society.
He says when you tell someone with a 20-year sentence that there's nothing they can do to reduce their sentence, it's easy to lose hope.
"Then quite naturally, that individual is not going to be programmed to be a productive inmate, a rule abiding inmate," says Horan.
It's the same question posed by former prisoner turned advocate John Knight.
"What do they have to be good for?" he asks.
On January 26, the Mississippi Department of Corrections sent out a news release that 26-year-old Joshua Norman had been found dead on a Sunday morning, hanging in his one-man cell at Parchman.
"Supposedly, he committed suicide," says his aunt, Janice Sherman. "I don't believe that happened to him."
She says he had been running from violence and brutality since he first entered the Mississippi Department of Corrections at age 16.
"He had no idea the trauma that awaited him," says Sherman. "It's just a very sad story."
He wrote to her that a gang was pressuring him to stab another inmate, but he was resisting, and had been beaten.
"If he did commit suicide, he may have been under duress to do it," she says. "There were just unanswered questions."
She's looking for accountability.
"We can't do anything to bring him back, but there are lots of people's sons and grandsons that are still in there," Sherman says. "You can't live every day knowing that you might die the same day."
Sherman says a prison sentence should not be a death sentence.