Locked Down: Life inside Mississippi prison where inmates set each other on fire, gangs control power

Published 1:01 pm Monday, August 19, 2019

By Jerry Mitchell

Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

LEAKESVILLE, Miss. — Jeffery Wilemon clutched his gut, throbbing in pain as he lay on his bed inside the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in April. But there was no way for him to cry out — not unless he wanted another beating.

Hours earlier, inmates had slugged the 54-year-old and declared he needed to “follow the rules” their gang had set for prison life, he later wrote in a handwritten pleading filed in Itawamba County Circuit Court.

After the beating, they escorted him to a gang leader who warned him he couldn’t run or hide because the gang had members everywhere, Wilemon wrote in his handwritten pleading against the prison.

In an interview with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, Wilemon, who was serving time for possessing a firearm as a felon and possession of a controlled substance in a correctional facility, said he knew the gang was vicious, and that it controlled many aspects of prison life. A few nights earlier, gang members had beaten and burned another inmate and left him for dead.

President Donald Trump hailed Mississippi last year for reforms it put in place in 2014 to reduce the prison population by providing job training and rehabilitation for inmates.

But the reality is starkly different. The number of inmates is growing, as the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica reported in May. Violence and gangs are worse than they’ve ever been, according to interviews, documents and data reviewed by the news organizations. And nowhere is that more apparent than at South Mississippi Correctional Institution.

The prison struggles to meet the fundamental duties of a correctional facility, with surging violence and, now, a lockdown barring visits entering its seventh month. Rather than counting inmates, as required, some guards are reportedly falsifying counts, an internal prison memo says.

The state has sharply cut spending on prisons over the last few years. Along the way, the number of guards at the three state-run prisons has plummeted, from 905 in July 2017 to 627 two years later, even as the number of inmates has remained the same. Vacancies abound, largely because the pay is so low.