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‘Too Hot’: MDOC Commissioner Says Installing Air Conditioners in Parchman to Help Hiring Push

Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain said the agency's recent employment drive and the placement of air-conditioning units in prison facilities, starting with the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Miss., would help it comply with the U.S. Department of Justice's demands for prison reform. Photo courtesy MDOC

Employing hundreds of additional workers and installing air-conditioning units in prison facilities will help meet the U.S. Department of Justice’s demand for reform in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman, Miss., Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain says.

In April 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division released a report detailing how inmates at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Miss., suffer from excessive heat. “Documentation produced by MDOC confirms numerous reports from incarcerated individuals of extreme heat in Parchman’s restrictive housing units,” the report said. “The highest temperature in that unit (solitary confinement unit) was recorded at the dangerously hot 145.1 degrees.”

Commissioner Cain talked about the recent efforts in an interview with WLOX shared in a post dated July 13, 2022, in which he indicated that installing air conditioners would improve conditions for the prison staff. “It’s a permanent job, good job, good retirement, so forth, but we just need to fill up our correctional officer slot,” he said. “We have our prison safer, quiet, and we have air conditioning coming into our prison for our correction officers to be more comfortable, and we’ll be in compliance with the Justice Department and so forth.”

In a press statement dated July 6, 2022, MDOC explained that as of July 1, 2022, the correctional officers and case managers are seeing a 10% salary increase. “The base salary for a corporal officer now starts at just over $36,000; for a sergeant, it is over $40,000; for a captain, it’s over $42,000; and for a major it starts over $47,000,” MDOC wrote. “In addition, benefits packages can range from about $17,000 to over $20,000 each year.”

“MDOC has put a heavy focus on recruiting and training as the department continues to make improvements,” the agency added.

‘Unreasonable Risk of Violence’

The U.S. Department of Justice, in the report on the Mississippi State Penitentiary, indicated that inadequate staffing poses a risk to inmates. “MDOC subjects persons confined at Parchman to an unreasonable risk of violence due to inadequate staffing, cursory investigative practices, and deficient contraband controls,” the report said. “These systemic failures result in an environment rife with weapons, drugs, gang activity, extortion, and violence, including 10 homicides since 2019.”

“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,” the report continued. “This demonstrates MDOC’s indifference to instituting reasonable remedies to address Parchman’s supervision crisis.”

Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain said that his agency is fixing and installing air-conditioning units at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Miss. File photo courtesy MDOC

In the July 6 press release, Cain indicated that he wants to change that narrative. “One of MDOC’s top priorities is offering quality candidates real opportunities to move up fast in both careers and pay scales,” he said

“This substantial salary increase will help us attract people who will really invest back into our vision and goal for what MDOC will become,” he added. “This is the first step of many in ramping up our recruiting efforts.”

The commissioner told WLOX that the department had been underfunded for a long time but did not provide proof. “It’s time to get it in shape, get all our prisons accredited, and get us ready for the Department of Justice,” he said. He did not explain what he meant by getting the prisons accredited. The Mississippi Free Press did not get a response from Cain’s office after reaching out on July 21 and July 22, 2022, via email and phone call requesting for an update on the employment drive and compliance with the Department of Justice’s report.

‘They Would Sanction Us for Being Too Hot’

In a report WLBT posted on its website on July 13, 2022, the MDOC commissioner told the outlet that the installation of air-conditioning units at Parchman was 75% completed at the time, with 40% of the population covered. The next targets will be the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, Miss., and the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville, Miss.

“The big picture is it would help us with the Justice Department,” Cain told WLBT. “They would sanction us for being too hot. They wouldn’t say you don’t have air conditioning; they would say it’s too hot, and so then obviously the only way to make it not-too-hot is the air conditioners, and we’ll dodge, maybe the Justice Department’s (sanction, and) save the State of Mississippi a whole lot of money.”

Before Gov. Tate Reeves appointed Cain as MDOC Commissioner in 2020, he was for 21 years the  Louisiana State Penitentiary (known as Angola) warden. In 2013,  the Promise of Justice initiative, on behalf of three death row inmates, sued Cain, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, its secretary, and the death row warden. They complained in their filing in the federal court that the prison authorities subjected them to “appalling and extreme conditions that Plaintiffs suffer each summer as a result of extreme heat on Angola Death Row, and the substantial risk of serious harm.” 

The plaintiffs alleged that although the Death Row Facility, which houses visitation rooms, guard towers, and administrative offices, are routinely air-conditioned, the inmates only have fans. They complained that during the summer months, the temperature is regularly above 95°F. “On more than one occasion in 2011, the recorded temperature was 100°F (and) the relative humidity 100%, putting the heat index (what the temperature feels like) at 195°F,” the plaintiff alleged.“During the hottest summer months, when temperatures remain uncomfortably high through the night, Plaintiffs resort to sleeping on the hard floor, in spite of the risk of bites from fire ants, because the floor is slightly cooler than their beds.”

In 2018, the court mediated an agreement between the parties with the authorities committing to offering remediations if the heat index is 88°F or more

‘Constitutional Violations Identified’

The U.S. Department of Justice’s 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, Miss. Courtesy U.S. Department of Justice

The April report on the Mississippi State Penitentiary referenced the danger inmates face at the facility from excessive heat and noted that conditions at the Parchman facility violates inmates’ constitutional rights. “Even though MDOC is aware of the conditions and the harms taking place in restrictive housing, it has failed to remedy those conditions and failed to refer incarcerated persons demonstrating self-harm to mental health for evaluation or treatment,” the report added.

In a press call on April 20, 2022, announcing the findings relating to the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Miss., Civil Rights Division Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said that the U.S. Department of Justice was in conversation with state leadership concerning the prison’s condition. She said the officials pledged their cooperation during a meeting.

“We convened with state officials today, and state officials have pledged their desire to continue to cooperate with us,” she said. “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.”

In the July 6 press release, Cain said hiring more workers would make prisons safer. “We are focused on creating a positive work culture where honest, hard-working people want to come and be a part of a new MDOC focusing on constant improvements,” he said. “Good employees are the foundation of a positive environment for everyone.”

A woman in red, smiling before a backdrop of the US flag
U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said state officials in Mississippi pledged to work on prison reforms. Photo courtesy Department of Justice

The department is wooing workers with the promise of full-time positions with retirement and insurance benefits, paid on-the-job training, vacation and sick leave. It is unclear if the training will include the ability to identify signs and symptoms of suicidal behavior, a lapse that the Justice Department identified in the April report.

“Parchman staff do not respond to self-harm emergencies in a timely or reasonable manner,” the report said. “Twelve individuals incarcerated at Parchman committed suicide in the last three years.”

“The problems at Parchman are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision,” the report continued. “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.”

Those interested in working for the MDOC, the agency says, can email [email protected].

 

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