Monday, June 22, 2020
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Living conditions in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman are “are sub-human and deplorable in a civilized society,” according to a physician who has evaluated the prison on behalf of inmates who are suing the state.
Dr. Marc Stern specializes in correctional health care and has evaluated dozens of jails, prisons and immigration detention facilities in the United States.
Conditions at Parchman “are the worst conditions I have observed in any U.S. jail, prison or immigration detention facility in my 20 years working in this field," Stern wrote in papers that attorneys filed June 8 in federal court.
“To say that the Mississippi Department of Corrections warehouses human beings at Parchman would be insulting to proper warehouses,” wrote Stern, who is a professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health and was previously the lead physician for the Washington State Department of Corrections.
As of Friday, attorneys for the state of Mississippi had not yet responded to the plaintiffs' June 8 filing. But the state's new corrections commissioner, Burl Cain, told lawmakers Tuesday: “We’re going to fix Parchman."
The inmates' lawsuit was filed in January, after outbursts of violence in multiple Mississippi prisons left some inmates dead and others injured. Attorneys are being paid by entertainment mogul Jay-Z, rapper Yo Gotti and Team Roc, the philanthropic arm of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation.
The lawsuit was filed weeks before the U.S. Justice Department announced in February that it is investigating Mississippi's prison system. The civil suit and the federal investigation are separate from each other and are moving forward on parallel tracks.
The inmates' lawsuit is asking a federal judge to mandate that the state improve living conditions in Parchman, where state Health Department inspections have previously shown longstanding problems with clogged toilets, broken windows and moldy showers.
The lawsuit lists 33 inmates as plaintiffs, though it seeks improvements for all inmates in Parchman. In the June 8 filing, attorney Marcy B. Croft wrote that 24 of the 33 plaintiffs have been transferred out of Parchman since the suit was filed.
“Violence is a part of everyday life at Parchman,” Croft wrote.
The June 8 filing includes sworn statements by inmates who said that they saw guards ignore or encourage violence. One said that in December, a guard let a gang-affiliated inmate open another inmate's cell and stab that man. In a separate incident, another plaintiff said that multiple inmates stabbed him about 10 times, guards did nothing to stop the assault and he had to wait hours to receive medical care.
Stern wrote that he saw exposed electrical wiring inside Parchman, some of it near standing water.
“Extension cords are strung from the center tower on the first floor to the second floor where in two units, they are secured by wrapping around a railing banister, then lose their outer protective sheathes, and run, unprotected, across the hallway floor, into a resident’s cell,” Stern wrote. "The risk of a serious electricity-induced injury (burn or death) is a constant risk.”
The lawsuit also says the food at Parchman is often “inedible.”
“This does not mean the food is merely unpalatable, but rather it is contaminated with animal or insect feces or it is raw and therefore unsafe to eat,” Croft wrote.
The state Senate last week confirmed Republican Gov. Tate Reeves' nomination of Cain as the new corrections commissioner, to oversee Mississippi's entire state prison system. Cain was a longtime warden of Angola prison in Louisiana and told Mississippi lawmakers that he took the new job because it's a challenge.
During Cain's confirmation hearing, Senate Corrections Committee members asked some questions about Parchman but did not drill down for details about inmates' living conditions.
Cain said the prison system will focus on improving food and ensuring that inmates get job training, recreation and access to religious services.