‘Severe, Systemic’: U.S. Civil Rights Division Finds ‘Constitutional Violations’ at Parchman

A woman in red, smiling before a backdrop of the US flag
Civil Rights Division Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said her office  found reasonable cause to believe that conditions and practices at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman violate inmates’ constitutional rights. Photo courtesy Department of Justice

JACKSON, Miss.—With 10 homicides and 12 suicides at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman since 2019, Civil Rights Division Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke announced on April 20, 2022, that her office had found reasonable cause to believe that conditions at the facility violate inmates’ constitutional rights.

United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division released a 60-page report on April 20, 2022, after two years of investigating the operations of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Courtesy Department of Justice

“The constitutional violations include inadequate mental-health treatment and suicide-prevention measures, (and) over-reliance on solitary confinement, also known as restrictive housing in a manner that endangers physical and mental health and uncontrolled violence between incarcerated people,” Clarke said in a press call Wednesday.

“The Constitution safeguards the inherent dignity of every human being, including people serving time in our prisons and jails,” she added. “The foundation of the Justice Department’s work to improve public safety is and always has been community trust.”

“Unconstitutional conditions of confinement in our country, state, and local prisons and jails breach that trust, which is why the Civil Rights Division is committed to investigating conditions and practices within these institutions when and where warranted.”

The Mississippi Free Press previously reported on conditions inside Parchman.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections, which oversees the state prisons, did not respond to a request for comment in an email that the Mississippi Free Press sent Wednesday afternoon. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves had appointed Burl Cain, former warden of Angola State Prison in Louisiana, as MDOC commissioner in May 2020. Cain previously agreed to an MFP Live interview to discuss conditions at the prison but backed out several times.

The Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman’s restroom facilities were bad and unclean in 2020.  Photo by Disability Rights Mississippi

‘Violence, Extortion, Illegal Drug and Gang Activity’

The Civil Rights Division released a 60-page report Wednesday from the investigation of Parchman prison. It indicates that there were four homicides in 2019 and six in 2020 at the facility.

“Three of the 2020 homicides occurred in a single week in early January, where one incarcerated person suffered 89 stab wounds, a second incarcerated person similarly suffered 75 stab wounds, and a third incarcerated individual died from strangulation,” the report outlined. “We tallied more than 100 documented assaults at Parchman from 2018 through May 2020. Of those non-deadly assaults, more than 25—approximately 25%—involved stabbings. Given the lack of supervision at Parchman, it is likely there are many more undocumented assaults.”

The Justice Department announced Wednesday that the investigations began in February 2020, with ongoing studies of conditions at South Mississippi Correctional Institution at Leakesville, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility at Woodville.

The division’s involvement with other states includes litigation against Alabama over the constitutionality of conditions in its prisons for men and recently opened investigation into Georgia state prisons.

Man with glasses in a suit and plaid tie with a Mississippi lapen pin
On March 9, 2022, Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes asked U.S. Attorney Darren J. LaMarca (pictured) to look into bribery charges Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba made against council members. Photo courtesy Department of Justice

“Right now, we are enforcing a consent decree in New Jersey to remedy systemic abuse faced by women held at the Edna Mahan prison for women,” Clarke said. “We are investigating five juvenile facilities in Texas and looking specifically at whether children held in these facilities are being protected from unconstitutional abuse.”

“And just last week, we entered into a settlement agreement with the state of South Carolina to protect children in state custody from physical abuse and other constitutional violations at the Broad River juvenile-detention facility.”

On the press call with Clarke were U.S. Southern District of Mississippi Attorney Darren J. LaMarca and U.S. Northern District of Mississippi Attorney Clay Joyner.

Gov. Tate Reeves appointed Burl Cain, former warden of Angola State Prison in Louisiana, as Mississippi Department of Corrections commissioner in May 2020. Photo courtesy MDOC

“The findings from our investigation of Parchman are concerning as they show systemic violations of the Constitution that endanger incarcerated individuals through violence, extortion, illegal drug and gang activity, poor mental health care and suicide prevention along with harsh restrictive housing conditions,” LaMarca said Wednesday.

Inadequate Suicide Prevention Measures

U.S. Attorney Joyner listed four specific conditions at Parchman that led the department to conclude that there was a constitutional violation. He said that administrators at Parchman failed to safeguard the incarcerated from physical damage and violence at the hands of other jailed people. They did not address the critical mental-health requirements of those detained at the institution due to poor mental-health care and treatment, he said.

“[T]hey failed to take adequate suicide-prevention measures to protect incarcerated persons at risk of self-harm,” Joyner said. “And finally that they use prolonged segregation under conditions that place persons confined to the facility at risk of serious harm, including persons with serious medical and mental health needs.”

“The placement of incarcerated persons, including those with serious mental-health needs, in prolonged periods of restricted house, restrictive housing under extreme heat and other conditions that increase the likelihood of harm from psychological deterioration and risk of suicide,” he added. “Though constitutional violations have been identified, we must now ensure that these problems are resolved; everyone, including those who are incarcerated, deserves protection under our Constitution.”

The 60-page report revealed that Parchman is rife with weapons, drugs, gang activity, and extortion.

Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman has almost 2,000 inmates with Black Mississippians accounting for 70% of the population there while making up 37% of the state’s population. Photo courtesy MDOC

“MDOC subjects incarcerated persons—including those with serious medical and mental-health needs—to segregation in restrictive housing for months and even years under egregious environmental conditions that pose a substantial risk of serious harm from psychological deterioration,” the report said. “Of the twelve Parchman suicides in the last three years, all of them occurred in restrictive housing.”

“The problems at Parchman are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision,” the report added. “MDOC has been on notice of these deficiencies for years and failed to take reasonable measures to address the violations, due in part to non-functional accountability or quality assurance measures.”

Poor Staffing and Supervision Failure

The report detailed the consequence of poor staffing and the consequent supervision failure. “The lack of supervision and staff presence on Parchman housing units creates an authority vacuum—where individuals incarcerated at Parchman rather than staff control the day-to-day operations of the units,” the report said. “As evidence of this absence of authority, persons confined to Parchman have openly defied contraband restrictions, posting photos of themselves on social media, or posting photos and videos of decrepit conditions in a cry for help.”

A report from the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division released on April 20, 2022, is a result of investigations begun in 2020. Photo courtesy Disability Rights Mississippi

“Unless MDOC institutes effective, necessary remedies to alleviate Parchman’s staffing and supervision crises, staff and incarcerated persons will remain at an unreasonable risk of serious harm.”

The report provides 28 recommendations for remediating the problems. It includes addressing staffing issues, safety and supervision, mental health and suicide prevention, and the use of segregation.

“Ensure that if an incarcerated person shows credible signs of decompensation in restrictive housing, the individual’s mental health needs are assessed by a qualified mental health professional and promptly addressed,” the report recommended. “Ensure that incarcerated persons expressing suicidality or self-harming behavior are not placed, by reason of their suicidal ideation or self-harming behavior, in restrictive housing and instead are provided clinically appropriate mental health care except as provided by remedial measure.”

Clarke noted that Parchman’s incarcerated population is nearly 2,000 with Black Mississippians accounting for 70% of the population there while making up 37% of the state’s population. She explained that State officials pledged their cooperation with the division during a Thursday meeting.

“We convened with state officials today, and state officials have pledged their desire to continue to cooperate with us,” she said in answer to a question from the Mississippi Free Press on seeking legal remedies to the violations. “We are very hopeful that we will be able to achieve a mutually acceptable agreement on the reforms necessary and appropriate to address the constitutional violations identified.”

 

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