Mississippi prisons 'a ticking time bomb' of squalor, violence and death. Who's at fault?

At a Mississippi prison, guards hand keys over to inmates so they can assault — or kill — other convicts. Inmates can’t sleep at night, fearing that packs of rats could crawl into their bunks. Care is so bad inmates set things on fire to try to get staff members to pay attention to medical emergencies.

That’s according to a lawsuit that more than 150 inmates filed against Mississippi Department of Corrections officials, with help from Jay-Z and Yo Gotti in the celebrities-turned-activists’ latest move to pressure Mississippi officials to make change.

Mississippi prisons came under intense scrutiny two months ago after riots left several inmates dead. The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a civil rights investigation. Gov. Tate Reeves has promised to “stop the bleeding.”

Photos and videos leaked from inside prisons during the riots forced the public to face the horrific conditions that inmates endure on a daily basis.

Many were left wondering: How did we get here? Who is at fault?

Some officials have blamed much of the violence on gangs.

But there’s more at work than violent gang members, according to inmates and experts interviewed by the Clarion Ledger, including a former corrections commissioner, a longtime prison monitor and advocates for reform.

The violence is inflamed, they say, by horrific conditions inside prison walls. Lawsuits filed by inmates describe facilities that are infested with vermin and mold, and are so short-staffed that inmates and guards fear for their lives. 

Since Dec. 29, 24 people have died in custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Seven were killed in violent altercations with other inmates, three died of apparent hangings and the rest have been attributed to unknown or natural causes, authorities said.

Governor Tate Reeves, Mayor George Flaggs Jr. at Parchman

Governor Tate Reeves, Mayor George Flaggs Jr. at ParchmanOffice of Tate Reeves

Three people, Former Gov. Phil Bryant, Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, bear more responsibility than others for the prison crisis, said Ron Welch, a retired attorney who litigated for inmates’ rights and monitored the prison system for decades.

Bryant, Welch said, appointed people who had no experience operating prisons, to lead MDOC.

Reeves and Gunn held influential roles in the Mississippi Legislature as lawmakers failed to fully fund the prison system despite dire warnings from corrections commissioners, Welch said. Without adequate funding, buildings have deteriorated and MDOC has struggled to hire guards who work for little pay in dangerous conditions.

Other factors are at play, experts say. Harsh sentencing laws and lack of early release programs swell the prison population, now putting Mississippi second in the nation for incarceration rates.  

Secrecy, not transparency, has been the modus operandi of MDOC in recent years. The darkness has allowed problems to fester and sabotaged public trust of the system, critics say.

Some activists say the problems plaguing MDOC can be traced back more than 100 years, to the founding of Parchman Farm, now called the Mississippi State Penitentiary. They say the current challenges in the state’s prison system are an extension of Parchman’s legacy of racism, brutality and abuse and have called for the facility to be shut down.

Mississippi prison facts

  • About 19,000 people are incarcerated by the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
  • Nearly half of all inmates are held at three state prisons — the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl and South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville.
  • The rest are spread across the state in 15 regional facilities or five private prisons. 
  • African Americans are disproportionately represented in prison. About 62% of prisoners are black, compared to 38% of the overall population in Mississippi.

One Parchman inmate, who asked to remain unnamed due to fear of reprisal, wrote to the Clarion Ledger in the wake of the riots. He described a prison infested with rats and mold. He said the buildings are in such disrepair that water pools on the floor when it rains. Drugs and other contraband flow freely behind bars. His descriptions of the conditions inside Parchman mirror those of other inmates and those described in lawsuits against the prison and in inspection reports. Reeves said at a recent news conference authorities found shanks, contraband cellphones and a bag of marijuana as they moved inmates out of an unsafe unit at Parchman into a nearby privately run prison.

“I know that which was broken can be fixed,” the inmate said. “People can and do rehabilitate but I think the general public here in Mississippi have been convinced that harsher sentences and deplorable conditions are more effective than rehabilitation efforts and the laws of Mississippi reflect that opinion.”

Inmates at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman talk about the huge mice or rats they see in this prison, sharing photos from Unit 29.

Inmates at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman talk about the huge mice or rats they see in this prison, sharing photos from Unit 29.SPECIAL TO MISSISSIPPI CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING

Welch said 2011 was a high point for MDOC.

That year, a judge dismissed Gates v. Collier, a 40-year-old landmark case that began with Parchman inmates and led to prison reform across America. The judge found, after decades of court intervention, Mississippi prisons had become humane and no longer systemically subjected inmates to cruel and unusual punishment.

At that time Mississippi was also one of a few states to receive accreditation from the American Correctional Association for all its state facilities.

This was all accomplished, Welch said, under the leadership of corrections Commissioner Chris Epps.

Epps was the whole package, according to Welch. He understood how to operate prisons. He started as a guard and rose through the ranks to become the longest serving corrections commissioner in state history. Epps was also politically savvy.

“He would go into these appropriations committees and he knew everybody’s name, he knew their wife’s name, he knew their son’s name,” Welch said.

Epps, in Welch’s opinion, was the best corrections commissioner the state had ever seen except for one conspicuous failing — he would later be convicted in the largest corruption scandal in Mississippi history.

In 2014, the expensive suit-wearing and Mercedes-driving leader of MDOC was accused of taking at least $1.4 million in bribes and kickbacks to steer nearly a billion dollars worth of state prison contracts to favored companies. After resigning and pleading guilty, Epps was sentenced to just shy of 20 years in federal prison.

For the next six years, MDOC was run by then-Gov. Bryant’s political appointees, people who had no experience working as correctional officers or managing prisons, Welch said. 

Former Gov. Bryant talks corrections, Parchman deaths

Then-Gov. Bryant reflects on state prison issues, tragedy and potential solutions in this video from January shortly before he left office.

Geoff Pender, The Clarion-Ledger

“Corrections is the hardest job in the state,” Welch said. “It’s the most difficult, dangerous, challenging, difficult to manage, to fund … to train people (for) … it takes a professional to do it.”

The man Byrant appointed to set the agency back on track after Epps’ corruption scandal was Marshall Fisher, who had an extensive history in law enforcement including serving as the director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, but no corrections experience.

After Fisher left to head the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, Bryant appointed Fisher’s chief of staff, Pelicia Hall, to serve as commissioner. Hall’s background was in the law. She had worked as lead counsel for the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics and served as special assistant U.S. attorney and special assistant state attorney general. She, too, had no experience running prisons.

While state law appears to recommend MDOC commissioners have experience working in prisons or managing corrections, it is not mandated.

The statute says commissioners should have a master’s degree in corrections, criminal justice or a related field and at least six years full-time experience in corrections, including at least three in correctional management experience. If not, then a bachelors degree in a corrections or criminal justice-related field, at least ten years experience working in corrections, with five years as a manager, would work. Or, if they do not meet either of those requirements, a bachelor’s degree and “relevant experience in fiscal management in the private or public sector” should suffice.

Fisher and Hall both fell into the last group, serving as sharp contrasts from Epps, who had spent his career working in corrections.

In recent years, some prisons have been put on lockdown for long periods of time because of a shortage of officers. That meant inmates’ movements were limited and in many cases, family visitations were cancelled.

Welch was critical of the lockdown decisions.

“These are not things you do if you want to calm a population down. These are things you do when you don’t have staff and you’re scared and don’t know what to do,” Welch said.

On Dec. 31, Hall announced she was resigning. Her departure coincided with a transition of power as the man who appointed her left the governor’s office, and was replaced with Reeves. 

Dec. 31 was also the day MDOC announced prisons statewide went on lockdown following an eruption of deadly gang violence.

Fisher, who also recently stepped down from leading DPS, told the Clarion Ledger corrections is a “tough job.”

“Everybody out there, unless they have sat in those chairs, got an opinion on how they think it ought to work,” Fisher said, responding to those who say he and Hall had no corrections experience. “It’s easy to sit and criticize folks if you haven’t sat in those chairs. All I can say is Gov. Bryant was extremely supportive of us and the agency. It’s like no matter what you are doing, whether you are running a Chick-Fil-A, you surround yourself with the experts and let them do their job…I have never been one who try to micromanage people.”

“I have the utmost respect for the people who serve as professionals in the field of corrections — the ones who put their lives into doing that job for decades,” Fisher said. “It takes a special person to do it. I pray for the people involved in it now.”

Hall and Bryant did not return requests for comment.

In his first week as governor, Reeves announced plans to “right the ship” at MDOC, starting with the appointment of Tommy Taylor, a former chairman of the House Corrections Committee, as the interim head of MDOC. He also tasked a committee to conduct a nationwide search for the next corrections commissioner.

“I believe there is a leadership crisis in the system,” Reeves said. “That starts at the top.”

Reeves suggested responsibility for the current upheaval in the prison system belongs to past MDOC leadership, who he said lawmakers felt they could not trust. Reeves has said when lawmakers have tried in the past to get answers from MDOC about conditions, financials and policies, they were “stonewalled.”

Recently, Reeves said an initial review of MDOC’s books since he’s taken office shows stunning financial waste and general mismanagement in recent years, even as prison officials requested more funding from lawmakers and hundreds of guard positions went unfilled.

“The fears we had in the legislative branch have been confirmed — money that was intended for the front lines, too often, did not reach there,” he said, noting an investigation has begun to understand the full extent of the alleged waste and more details would be released soon.

Mississippi prison crisis: Reform advocates share concerns about system

Advocates for reform in the Mississippi prison system sit down with the Clarion Ledger to discuss their concerns after a wave of violence and deaths.

Clarion Ledger, Mississippi Clarion Ledger

Initial findings by his staff and others include what appear to be an excessive number of vehicles owned by the department, executive-level positions that appear to have received surprising amounts of compensation time payments in recent years, and other “commodities and expenditures” that may have been inappropriate.

After visiting Parchman in January, Reeves said he was “appalled by things (he’s) learned in the last week” and promised fixes to the system.

Lea Campbell, an advocate with the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, called Reeves’ statement “absurd.”

“He’s known this for eight years, a minimum of eight years, and he chose to give corporations tax breaks with our public funds as opposed to investing in the prison system, which he knew was a ticking time bomb,” Campbell said.

Former corrections commissioner Robert L. Johnson said prisons have never been a funding priority in Mississippi.

The overarching philosophy of Mississippi officials is to pay as little as you can for corrections in the state and that hasn’t changed in 25 years, said Johnson, who was MDOC commissioner from 2000 to 2002.

“You can’t operate prisons on a bare budget,” Johnson said. “We just don’t seem to grasp that if you save some money in corrections, you have to put money back into the system.”

“The Legislature has just kicked the can down the road and it’s now coming due,” Johnson said. 

Even as Reeves has attempted to push responsibility for the prison crisis on former MDOC leaders, he can’t escape scrutiny for the power he has wielded in the budget-making process for the past eight years.

Before becoming governor, then-Lt. Gov. Reeves played a lead role in writing laws and setting state budgets. The lieutenant governor’s counterpart in the House of Representatives is Speaker Philip Gunn, who exercises similar influence over budgets and policy.

In the past decade, lawmakers have cut tens of millions of dollars from MDOC’s budget. For fiscal year 2015, the Legislature approved $346 million for corrections. Within four years, the budget had been slashed to $306.6 million even as the prison population stayed about the same.

The cuts MDOC saw after fiscal year 2015 were part of slashes that impacted most state agencies. In 2016 and 2017, Bryant and the Legislature made several cuts to the state budget, as revenue came in lower than expected.

Asked about his responsibility in budget cuts in a January news conference, Reeves responded the spending per inmate “actually is significantly higher today than it was six years ago,” pointing to a decrease in the prison population since 2013. 

Ron Welch

How would you feel if you were housed in a place where the toilets didn’t work … you had to defecate in a bag because you couldn’t flush the the toilet? … Put 100 church deacons in that situation, (or) Sunday school teachers, and they’re going to be fighting with each other.

In 2013, more than 22,000 people were incarcerated in Mississippi, marking it as one of the highest points of the state’s prison population in history.

He has also said he does not believe a lack of funding is a critical issue for MDOC.

During their time as corrections commissioners, both Fisher and Hall pushed for additional spending to hire and retain additional staff including increasing the pay of correctional officers. 

In 2016, the Legislature provided money to increase the starting pay of correctional officers. However, with a starting wage of $25,650, Mississippi’s correctional officers are still among the lowest paid in the nation. It hasn’t been enough to alleviate the shortage of guards.

In January 2019, a year before riots erupted in Mississippi prisons, Hall warned of a “pressure cooker” situation as staff vacancies led the agency to put South Mississippi Correctional Facility on lockdown. Hall asked for increased funding to raise officers’ salaries.

As of June, about half of all correctional officer positions were vacant for Mississippi’s three state prisons, making Mississippi’s guard vacancy rate second highest in the nation, an investigation by the Marshall Project found. Of the 583 correctional officer positions authorized for Parchman, only 310 were filled. At the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, there were more empty spots than there were working officers.

For every 21 inmates there is one officer at the South Mississippi Correctional Facility, which was on lockdown for essentially all of 2019 because of a staffing shortage. To compare, Alabama’s prison system has about nine prisoners per officer — a staffing ratio that the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division cited as being “egregious” and “dangerous” in 2019.

Reeves has previously said while he will push for increasing salaries for correctional officers, he does not believe money is the key to improving Mississippi prisons.

“We are going to work with the Legislature, and we’re going to ask for the amount of funding that is necessary to properly and adequately house these prisoners. But we’re not going to do what some have done in the past, and so might do in the future, which is just ask for money, money, money, and think that money is the only thing that solves these challenges,” he said.

More funding, Reeves has said he believes will have little impact “if it is being misspent.”

Something has to change, said Welsh. Mississippi leaders have to better fund prisons to hire more officers, reduce the number of prisoners, he said, or “more people are going to die.”

Some say the biggest problem with Mississippi’s prison system is that too many people are locked up.

The proof of “over-incarceration” is in the numbers, Mississippi State Public Defender Andre de Gruy said. While Mississippi ranks near the middle when comparing crime rates across states, the Magnolia state now has the second highest incarceration rate per capita in the nation. Mississippi’s incarceration rate recently surpassed Oklahoma’s, which is working to decrease the number of people in prison, according to FWD.us, while Louisiana continues to lead the country in incarceration.

Of every 100,000 residents in Mississippi, 652 are behind bars, according to FWD.us, a national advocacy group for criminal justice reform.

It hasn’t always been that way. Harsh sentencing laws enacted with a “tough-on-crime” mentality played a big role in growing the prison population. They include mandatory minimum sentencing laws and habitual offender laws, which have resulted in thousands of people serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes if they had been convicted in the past.

Also, in 1995, the Mississippi Legislature passed one of the toughest “truth in sentencing” laws in the nation — a law that required almost all convicted offenders to serve the bulk of their sentences without possibility of early parole. Unlike many other states that joined in a national push for such laws, Mississippi applied them to nonviolent offenders, too.

Parchman inmate

People can and do rehabilitate but I think the general public here in Mississippi have been convinced that harsher sentences and deplorable conditions are more effective than rehabilitation efforts and the laws of Mississippi reflect that opinion.

Longer sentences means more people in prison. In the next 15 years, the incarcerated population more than doubled. As prison costs skyrocketed, lawmakers and MDOC officials have worked to reduce sentences and allow more early releases.

An effort to address the prison population in 2014 seemed to work for a few years. That year, the Legislature passed a sweeping criminal justice reform bill called House Bill 585. The plan, which promised to reduce the number of people in prison and save money to be reinvested in corrections programs, drew widespread praise.

The reforms gave more leeway for judges to determine sentences and alternatives to prison. It expanded use of drug courts, which have been shown to reduce recidivism. The new laws also focused on those dealing larger amounts of drugs while lowering sentences for possession or trafficking of small amounts.

In the years following the passage of House Bill 585, the prison population dropped from about 22,300 to about 18,000. However, the number of people behind bars began to inch back up, partly because judges were sending people back to prison for violating probation or parole. 

Savings from HB 585 should have been reinvested into programs for offenders, but instead they went into the state’s coffers to help pay for corporate tax cuts when Mississippi was struggling to meet revenue estimates, according to the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

Last year, MDOC’s top official said the agency wanted to be exempt from certain parts of the public records law, which is intended to promote transparency in government.

“There should be some limits on what you are transparent about,” Hall said before the Senate Corrections Committee.

Hall’s request, which was never seriously considered in the Legislature, reflects the agency’s preference for secrecy and unwillingness to be forthcoming about what goes on inside prison walls.

“There’s no sunlight shining into our prisons now. There’s nobody from the outside who can see it,” Welch said. 

Families of inmates say they’re kept in the dark by prison officials. Dozens of people interviewed by the Clarion Ledger say it’s nearly impossible to get answers from prison or MDOC staff when their loved ones have been injured or killed.

During the recent riots, it was difficult to get more information about what was happening inside prisons, even as inmates took to social media on contraband cell phones to post photos and videos on the ongoing chaos. MDOC referred to the incidents only as “major disturbances” and refused to release information on injuries until weeks later.

“I understand that cell phones are not allowed in the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” said former inmate and community activist Benny Ivey at a prison reform rally in January. “But thank god there were… (now) they can’t hide it.”

Reeves said one of the changes made under the new administration was instructing MDOC staff to “proactively provide as much information to the public as possible, as quickly as possible, about deadly incidents in the system.”

A new commissioner must be someone that he, members of the Legislature and the public can trust, the governor said.

“We will ensure that the next leader of the Department of Corrections is transparent, is open with the press and quite frankly, ultimately open with the people of this state,” Reeves said.

The lack of transparency has been “fertile ground for corruption,” Campbell said.

Campbell said without oversight and accountability, prisons have become overrun with contraband. Guards turn a blind eye to illegal activity in prisons and play an active part in bringing in contraband, she said.

In the past, Mississippi guards have been convicted of assaulting inmates, arrested for allegedly smuggling in contraband and having sex with inmates.

In this photo from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, inmates are shown with cattle at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Miss.

In this photo from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, inmates are shown with cattle at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Miss.Courtesy of Mississippi Dept. of Archives and History

Many of the recent deaths have occurred at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, the state’s oldest prison and one of the most infamous in the country.

Some activists have called for Parchman to be shut down permanently. They say the prison cannot be divorced from its legacy of racism, brutality and abuse, that the current problems at Parchman are an extension of problems that have plagued the prison from its inception.

Historically known as Parchman Farm, the prison was established in 1901 and now occupies a sprawling 18,000 acres in the heart of the fertile Delta. It was, as Historian David Oshinsky said, “the closest thing to slavery that survived the Civil War.” 

From the beginning, Parchman operated much like a plantation. Inmates grew cotton, soybeans and other crops, took care of livestock and operated a dairy. The state of Mississippi made millions in today’s dollars a year off the free inmate labor. Prisoners were whipped with an infamous thick leather strap known as “Black Annie” and guards relied on armed inmates called “trusty shooters” to keep others in line.

As it did for many other aspects of life in Mississippi, the Civil Rights Movement catalyzed change at the state penitentiary. In the 1960s, hundreds of civil rights activists were arrested for protesting racism and challenging segregation, with many of them shipped off to serve time at Parchman. The abuse they faced in prison focused a national spotlight on the penitentiary.

Civil rights lawyers helped Parchman inmates file the Gates v. Collier litigation, charging that prison conditions were unconstitutional, catalyzing reform.

Now, five decades after the inception of Gates v. Collier, Mississippi has again captured national attention for brutality in its prisons.

Many of the details described in Gates v. Collier mirror the conditions today: Too few guards to maintain control and keep inmates safe, officers allowing inmates to fight and acquire drugs and other contraband, units filled with broken windows, unusable bathroom facilities and inadequate medical care.

In some ways, Welch said, the conditions in prison now are worse than they were when Parchman was functioning as a plantation.

“(Back then) inmates could come and go. When they weren’t working they could be out in their yard, have games. The activity of that reduced the stress,” he said.

Now, Welch said, prisons are sometimes put on lockdown for long periods of time. Inmates are confined to their units and families aren’t able to visit their loved ones in prison.

In this photo from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, inmates are shown with mules at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Miss.

In this photo from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, inmates are shown with mules at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Miss.Courtesy of Mississippi Dept. of Archives and History

“How would you feel if you were housed in a place where the toilets didn’t work, where the sink didn’t work, when the where the water went out … you had to defecate in a bag because you couldn’t flush the the toilet? Does that indicate anybody cares about you? If nobody cares about you then there’s no hope. What are you going to behave like?” Welch said. 

“Put 100 church deacons in that situation, Sunday school teachers, and they’re going to be fighting with each other,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Alissa Zhu at [email protected] Follow @AlissaZhu on Twitter.

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