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Lawsuit Claims Mississippi Prisons Endangering Inmates’ Lives Amid Pandemic

Mississippi Center for Justice Deputy Director of Impact Litigation Paloma Wu says the lack of staffing at Mississippi prisons is endangering inmates’ lives. Photo courtesy MCJ.

A man at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution waited days to get a response after he submitted a pink slip, asking for a medical examination for symptoms consistent with COVID-19, including fever, cough, body aches and trouble breathing. While he waited for an examination, he continued to sleep night-after-night in a 100-man housing unit, where rows of bunk beds stand only about 4 feet apart. The facility never tested the man for the novel coronavirus nor the flu, and whatever illness he was suffering “quickly spread to others in his unit,” a new class-action lawsuit alleges.

The Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit law firm, announced the suit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections this afternoon on behalf of all 6,000 inmates at the state’s two largest prisons. The suit accuses SMCI, which is in Greene County, and the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, in Rankin County, of “taking inadequate steps to prevent the infection and mitigate an outbreak of COVID-19.”

The Center announced the lawsuit in conjunction with the Hogan Lovells international law firm and the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi. It accuses MDOC and the two prisons of violating prisoners’ rights under federal law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the Eight Amendment, which forbids “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“People in prison are being forced to use their personal unlaundered towels to wipe down common areas for lack of rudimentary cleaning supplies to keep communicating inside safe from this deadly pandemic,” Joshua Tom, the interim executive director and legal director of the state ACLU, said in a statement today. “The data is clear that hotspots of infection in prisons lead to increased infection in surrounding communities. It is in everyone’s best interest to follow the law regarding the treatment of people in prison during this pandemic.

The lawsuit claims that the “functionally overcrowded” prisons are not following U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines and should be doing more to make social distancing possible, especially for the residents who “spend most of their time in and between cramped rows of bunk beds placed about four feet apart.” It says residents lack disinfectant and protective equipment, including clean towels and facial tissue, and “regularly run out of soap and cannot wash their hands”; and that officials are not doing enough to give inmates information on practices to safeguard against COVID-19. 

“Certain housing units at CMCF and SMCI hold concentrated chronic care populations—of elderly, ill, and disabled individuals at higher risk of hospitalization and death due to COVID-19 infection,” the lawsuit reads. “Even in these crowded 100-person double-bunked zones, prison officials have not adequately implemented rudimentary pandemic response protocols, such as frequent cleaning and disinfection of living units and provision of sufficient cleaning supplies. Residents regularly run out of soap and cannot wash their hands.”

The plaintiffs are asking the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi’s Northern Division to order MDOC and the prisons to rectify the issues they say threaten inmates’ lives and health.

Staff ‘Unavailable or Unresponsive’

The Central Mississippi Correctional Facility is one of two in the State that a lawsuit claims is failing to adequately protect residents against COVID-19. (Photo courtesy MDOC)

Like MDOC’s prison system as a whole, the overcrowded prisons are understaffed. In MCJ’s statement today, Paloma Wu, the center’s deputy director of impact litigation, painted a dire picture of the conditions inside the MDOC facilities.

“MDOC prisons like CMCF and SMCI operate at nearly double their staffed capacity, so a single guard may be responsible for supervising hundreds of individuals across one or two buildings,” Wu said. “This means there is often nobody to tell if you feel sick, and right now, there are people inside who have run out of soap and can’t get cleaning supplies—the unnecessary risk of harm to our community members in custody is unacceptable.”

The suit claims that inmates who have needed medical attention have been “unable to obtain it” in the past because “staff was unavailable or unresponsive.” One plaintiff at CMCF, the suit alleges without specifying which inmate, has life-threatening asthma attacks and “has experienced these debilitating attacks when no staff member was present to help him visit medical staff,” even though medical staff had previously ordered him to “directly report to the infirmary when he feels an attack coming on.” 

Another plaintiff at the Rankin County prison claims she was present when a pregnant woman’s water broke in her unit, and “no guard was present to allow her access to medical staff.”

The list of named plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit who are housed at CMCF include Brittany Waddell, a 33-year-old mother of three who is incarcerated for a drug offense who lives in a unit with about 120 women; Roger Ewing, a 68-year-old man in a unit with about 100 men who uses a wheelchair as a result of multiple strokes, suffers from severe chronic asthma, has had “multiple bouts of cancer” and has the beginning stages of emphysema, making it difficult for him to breathe; Tony Smith, a 58-year old man with high blood pressure and high cholesterol who lives with 100 other men; and Daniel Hatten, who suffers from high-blood pressure.

Named plaintiffs at SMCI include Douglass Triplett, 56, who has HIV and suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, a condition for which he “has not received treatment … for approximately 20 years,” the lawsuit claims; Bob Henderson, a man with neurofibromatosis, which “causes tumors to grow on his spine and nervous system, as well as outside his body,” and who also has high blood pressure, depression, and “problems with white blood cells”; Erik Lewis, a 38-year-old inmate who “suffers from chronic asthma” and “often struggles to breathe”; Thomas Holder, 64, who has diabetes and type one bipolar disorder; and Jamarcus Davis, who “suffers from anxiety and depression” and whose symptoms “have become more serious over the course of the pandemic, the lawsuit claims.

Many of the named plaintiffs’ illnesses and disabilities make them eligible for special considerations and health protections under the The Rehabilitation Act, which prevents federal contractors and programs receiving federal funds from discriminating against people with disabilities, and the Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, services and employment.

The lawsuit alleges that MDOC, which receives federal funds, “failed to reasonably modify its programs and services to address the substantial and increased risk” that plaintiffs have of “contracting, becoming severely ill from, and/or dying from COVID-19 due to their disability.”

“Defendants know that individuals with disabilities are in especially acute need of access to reasonable modifications (to) prison programs and policies during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet it has denied these accommodations to the Disability Plaintiffs and other members of the Disability subclass,” the suit reads.

MDOC Commissioner Tommy Taylor, a named plaintiff in the case, has defended his department’s handling of the novel coronavirus crisis.

“Our top priority is protecting the health and well-being of all within our system. Thanks to measures we put in place at the very onset of the pandemic, such as suspending visitations and transfers, we have been fortunate that our numbers have not increased. … We are doing all we can to prevent further transmission during this unprecedented time,” he said in an April 27 statement.

Meager Testing in MDOC Facilities

Interim MDOC Commissioner Tommy Taylor has defended his department’s handling of the novel coronavirus crisis. Photo courtesy MDOC.

MDOC has tested less than half-a-percent of the inmates in its facilities, the lawsuit notes, making it difficult to know how widespread COVID-19 infections may or may not be systemwide. As of Wednesday, MDOC had confirmed only 10 novel coronavirus cases in its facilities, including two in the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Sunflower County; one at the Carroll-Montgomery County Correctional Facility; five at the Marion-Walthall County Correctional Facility; and two at the Winston-Choctaw County Correctional Facility.

While MDOC’s confirmed COVID-19 cases remain low, like the number of inmates tested, the Yazoo City Federal Correctional Complex in the Mississippi Delta has confirmed that 120 inmates and 25 staff members have tested positive for the virus—a total larger than the number of tests the state prison system has administered systemwide. By Thursday, MDOC had tested fewer than 100 people, counting inmates and staff.

In an April report, the criminal-justice reform group FWD.us issued a report warning that most of Mississippi’s state prison population could have COVID-19 by the end of May unless the governor took steps to reduce the prison population. Earlier this month, though, Gov. Tate Reeves said he does “not believe we ought to use the excuse of a pandemic to change our sentencing structure in our criminal justice system,” ruling out any reduction in MDOC prisons. The FWD.us report estimated that nearly 200 inmates could die in MDOC facilities.

“This is a perfect storm, and I’m afraid it only exacerbates pre-existing problems,” J. Robertson, who leads criminal justice reform efforts at the conservative-leaning Empower Mississippi organization, told the Mississippi Free Press last month, noting overcrowding and staffing shortages in MDOC’s facilities.

In MCJ’s statement today, Vangela M. Wade, the center’s president, reiterated her organization’s own calls for the State to reduce the size of its prison population.

“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mississippi’s prisons were already in a state of crisis; men and women die in Mississippi prisons at a rate that far exceeds the nation average,” Wade said. “Safely reducing the number of incarcerated people is the best way to prevent an unnecessary deadly outbreak, but in the meantime, minimal protective practices must be immediately implemented.”

Since the start of the year, at least 40 inmates have died in Mississippi’s prison facilities, including some who died violently. But MDOC has confirmed only one COVID-19-related death so far, after a man at Parchman contracted and died from the virus in April. 

Several other inmates have died from “natural causes” in recent weeks, but MDOC has not said whether they tested positive for the coronavirus or not. One prisoner, 60-year-old Rodney Brown, died early this month at SMCI in Greene County.

This week, two more Parchman inmates died, including Robert Floyd McGuire, 56, who MDOC said in a May 11 statement “was found unresponsive on his rack at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Monday morning.” There “were no signs of trauma to his body, according to the Sunflower County coroner,” MDOC said.

The other inmate, Timmy Terrell Harden, was being treated for terminal cancer when he died in a hospital on May 12, MDOC said, adding that “an autopsy will determine his cause and manner of death.”

‘Only a Matter of Time’

The class-action lawsuit points to other states with prison outbreaks. At the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Hartsville, Tenn., more than half of its population had tested positive for the virus by May 7. 

At one point in April, the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio, where 80% of inmates had tested positive, represented “the largest known source of coronavirus infection in the United States,” the suit notes. In Arkansas, the Department of Corrections’ Cummins Unit saw its number of infections rise from one on April 12 to more than 600 by April 19, which at the time represented almost one-third of infections statewide.

“The experience of other states shows that once COVID-19 begins spreading within a prison, it is only a matter of time until the outbreak spreads rapidly and hundreds are infected,” today’s lawsuit says.

Prisoners are not getting the vital information they need to take steps to help stop the spread on their own initiative either, the lawsuit alleges. It specifically claims that the prisons are not keeping CDC-proscribed informational posters on the walls to give inmates information to protect themselves. The posters the facilities have gone up, the lawsuit claims, are English only, leaving Spanish-only speaking inmates with no information at all. Even the English posters quickly disappear and are not being replaced, though, the plaintiffs claim.

The CDC also calls for prisons to implement “intensified cleaning and disinfecting procedures,” including “several times per day, clean(ing) and disinfect(ing) surfaces and objects that are frequently touched, especially in common areas,” such as countertops, toilets, doorknobs, lightswitches, phones and sink handles.

“At CMCF, however, cleaning of common areas is haphazard and occurs approximately once a day instead of several times a day,” the lawsuit says. “Cleaning supplies for common areas are limited, and sometimes they run out. No cleaning supplies are available to clean the living areas where people sleep and spend most of their time. … At SMCI, cleaning of the common areas is haphazard and does not happen several times per day. In some situations, there are not enough supplies to clean the common areas. There are no supplies available to clean the living areas where people sleep and spend most of their time.”

Nearly 500 COVID-19 Deaths in Mississippi

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, when Reeves took office as governor in January, a raft of violent and otherwise preventable deaths plagued Mississippi’s prisons, and the governor conceded that reforms are needed.

“We know that there are people in prison today who do not need to be there. We want to fix that,” he said earlier this year,  NPR’s Debbie Elliot and Walter Ray Watson reported.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves toured MDOC prison facilities in January after the year began with a raft of violent inmate deaths. (Photo courtesy Gov. Tate Reeves)

But not only has the governor shown no will to reduce prison populations, he has begun reopening a number of businesses even as the State continues to record record increases in the number of coronavirus cases. This afternoon, he announced that casinos across the state will be allowed to begin reopening on May 21, following his reopenings this week and last week of gyms, barbershops, beauty salons, and indoor dining at restaurants.

The move came as the Mississippi State Department of Health confirmed another 393 COVID-19 cases today, the third-highest day-to-day increase yet, bringing the total to 10,483. MSDH also confirmed another 15 deaths, bringing the toll to 480. 

Information on coronavirus prevention measures is available at the University of Mississippi Medical center’s website at umc.edu/coronavirus and at cdc.gov/coronavirus.

The Mississippi Free Press has an interactive map showing diagnosed coronavirus cases across the state and one showing the number of ICU beds in counties across the state.

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