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US Department of Justice Says Violent and Unsanitary Conditions at Mississippi Prison Violate Constitution

Published: April 21, 2022
View through prison bars of dormitory bunks at Mississippi State Penitentiary (or Parchman Farm), Mississippi, 1964. (Image: Robert Elfstrom/Villon Films/Getty Images)

A report, released on April 20, by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has blasted the conditions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman as “unconstitutional.” 

The sprawling 59-page report was produced by Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Civil Rights Division, U.S. Attorney Clay Joyner for the Northern District of Mississippi, and U.S. Attorney Darren J. LaMarca for the Southern District of Mississippi.

The trio says there is reason to believe that violations of both the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are occurring. 

The Eighth Amendment concerns issues of cruel and unusual punishment in addition to outlawing excessive bail and fines. The Fourteenth Amendment, in part, says that no state can “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

“The United States Department of Justice (Department) conducted an investigation of the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman) under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA). The investigation revealed that conditions at Parchman violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution,” the report reads.

While the report does not go into detail concerning the alleged Fourteenth Amendment violations it does reveal four specific areas where the DOJ believes the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) is failing to provide constitutional rights to inmates at Parchman. 

Failure to protect incarcerated persons from violence

Inadequate staffing is being blamed for rampant violence at the prison. The DOJ report reveals that staffing at the prison is grossly inadequate. One external study showed a 59 percent vacancy rate among correctional officers.  

“Although MDOC has made some efforts recently to recruit and hire more staff, Parchman has been operating with roughly half the needed staff since at least 2018. This demonstrates MDOC’s indifference to instituting reasonable remedies to address Parchman’s supervision crisis,” the report reads.

Citing 10 homicides in the prison since 2019, the report accuses the MDOC of subjecting prisoners at Parchman to “an unreasonable risk of violence due to inadequate staffing, cursory investigative practices, and deficient contraband controls.”

The DOJ says these “systemic failures” have resulted in an environment “rife with weapons, drugs, gang activity, extortion, and violence.” 

Failure to meet the serious mental health needs of prisoners

The report says that the penitentiary is failing to provide adequate mental health care for inmates with serious mental health needs. 

“MDOC’s flawed intake screening and poor mental health assessments fail to identify incarcerated persons in need of mental health care,” the report reads.

Inadequate staffing levels are cited again with the report asserting that Parchman has too few qualified mental health staff to meet the mental health care needs of persons confined at Parchman, which “results in serious harm.”

According to the report, only 10 percent of Parchman’s incarcerated population is on a list of prisoners identified for mental health treatment while a typical correctional facility operates with between 25-30 percent on such a list. 

The individual responsible for mental health care at the prison argued the number of prisoners on the list is low because prisoners identified with a serious mental health issue are transferred to Eastern Mississippi Correctional Facility, however the report’s authors wrote, after reviewing records, that they “found no support for this assertion.”

Failure to take adequate suicide prevention measures

In the past three years, 12 prisoners have committed suicide at Parchman and since 2015 20 individuals incarcerated at Parchman have taken their own lives. The report blasts the MDOC for failing to “identify individuals at risk of suicide” and for housing them—often unsupervised—in “dangerous areas that are not suicide resistant.”

In addition, the DOJ asserts that the MDOC does not adequately train Parchman officers “to identify the signs and symptoms of suicidal behavior,” and that staff do not respond to self-harm emergencies in a timely or reasonable manner.  

The DOJ investigation found that Parchman nursing staff regularly skipped vital questions on intake forms associated with a “prior history of psychiatric observation or suicide watch, current thoughts/plans of suicide or self-harm, history of suicide attempts, psychiatric hospitalizations, or alcohol or substance abuse.”

“Parchman staff lack the skills necessary to identify incarcerated persons at risk of suicide and respond to suicide or self-harm emergencies. Suicide prevention training at Parchman is uneven, disjointed, and grossly inadequate at best, and non-existent at worst,” the report reads.

Prolonged use of solitary confinement

Perhaps the most startling discovery of the DOJ investigation is just how long some prisoners, including those with serious medical and mental health needs, are incarcerated in segregation. 

Some prisoners are forced into segregation for “months and even years under egregious environmental conditions that pose a substantial risk of serious harm from psychological deterioration.”

“Of the twelve Parchman suicides in the last three years, all of them occurred in restrictive housing,” the report revealed.

The report accuses MDOC staff of placing incarcerated persons in prolonged segregation in restrictive housing with “deliberate indifference” to the prisoners serious medical and mental health needs. 

“MDOC’s use of prolonged restrictive housing, which has particularly dire consequences for people with mental health disabilities, implicates the Eighth Amendment requirement that prison officials cannot be deliberately indifferent to serious medical and mental health needs,” the report states. 

The DOJ argues that while restrictive housing “is not per se cruel and unusual, there are constitutional boundaries to its use.”

Factors considered relevant in determining whether restrictive housing has crossed the line into being unconstitutional include unsanitary living conditions, “without opportunity for cleaning the cell,” deprivation of food, bedding, clothing, hygienic materials, and showers. 

Other factors considered include extreme temperatures. The report states that “Constitutional rights don’t come and go with the weather.”

Parchman holds hundreds of prisoners in solitary confinement for an average of 515 days, and many are held in these conditions for several years, according to the report. 

Prisoners are locked down for 23 hours per day, with one hour out of cell for recreation and showers three times per week. 

The conditions found at the penitentiary border on the horrific. People in restrictive housing are being held in “dilapidated, crumbling structures with collapsing ceilings, leaking water, holes in the walls and floors, and showers that either are not working or do not have any hot water.”

Mold is pervasive and worsened by inoperable exhaust fans.

The report found that in addition to facing these decrepit conditions, “incarcerated persons are locked down in dark cells often without lighting, operable toilets and sinks with clean water, or mattresses or pillows.”