Federal inquiry requested for Mississippi prisons after week of deadly violence

Published 4:46 pm Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Prisoner advocates are calling on the federal government to investigate Mississippi’s prison system for possible civil rights violations, saying the violence of recent days highlights deliberate violations of inmates’ constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

A formal letter and protest came Tuesday even as the mother of one slain inmate said she’s still waiting on an official explanation of how her son died.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Mississippi conference of the NAACP, the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups made the request to the U.S. Department of Justice. The letter warns that “it is no exaggeration to say more lives will be lost absent immediate intervention.”

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“The Mississippi prison system is in a state of acute and undeniable crises, with five deaths in just the last ten days, and a history of preventable deaths and injuries stretching back years,” the 23-page complaint states. “Mississippi has acknowledged the danger presented by severe understaffing and horrific conditions, but has repeatedly failed to take appropriate action.”

U.S. Rep Bennie Thompson, Mississippi’s only Democrat in Congress, called Sunday for a federal investigation after inmates were killed by fellow prisoners across three prisons and an unknown number of inmates were injured. Mississippi prison officials, who called in state troopers and a Tennessee prison guard team to regain control, have said four of deaths are related to violence among gangs.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections on Tuesday lifted lockdowns at 11 of the state’s 15 county-run regional facilities, but kept them at two regional facilities and six larger prisons.

Rotonia Gates, the mother of one of the men that was killed, said she’s still waiting for a fuller accounting of what happened to her son, Walter “Keon” Gates, 25. He was stabbed to death at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman on Dec. 31.

“They didn’t even call me to tell my son was killed,” said Gates, who said she heard from other inmates and families that her second-youngest child had been zip-tied and stabbed repeatedly. She said she’s been advised to not look at Walter’s body because the wounds are so severe. His funeral is scheduled for Saturday.

“The families need relief,” said Gates, who said her son was mistakenly released and then returned to prison, expecting to be paroled again in May. “Somebody’s going to have to answer for this — that’s too many deaths. And for what?”

Outgoing Gov. Phil Bryant said Monday he would welcome a federal investigation into prisons, but said federal officials should also investigate criminals and gangs in the state’s crime-challenged capital city of Jackson and across the state.

The state prison system and the Justice Department didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Speakers at a Tuesday rally outside the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson demanded that lawmakers reduce the prison population and make inmates safer.

C.J. Lawrence of the group Black With No Chaser, rejected attempts to place responsibility on inmate gangs, pointing toward the capitol building.

“The gang violence that’s really occurring here is happening over there right now, and has been happening for decades,” Lawrence said.

Benny Ivey of Florence, Mississippi, said he spent 11 years in Mississippi prisons and was captain of the Simon City Royals gang inside Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl. He now works to mentor troubled young people. Ivey said he wasn’t surprised by the outburst of violence.

“I’m not about to kick under the rug the fact that this was gang violence, OK? It was. It’s just a fact of the matter,” Ivey said at the rally. “But also the fact of the matter is, if you ain’t treated like animals, you won’t act like an animal. You’ve got these people up in there. They are people, man. They’re our loved ones. They are our brothers, our uncles, our daddies, our grandfathers, man.”

The deaths and riots since Christmas have focused attention on a prison system that fills only about half its guard posts.

Prison leaders seek an additional $67 million to raise pay, hire 800 new guards and renovate a Parchman cell block that was a focus of unrest. But lawmakers in November recommended a funding cut for the three state-operated prisons. They recommended level spending on private prisons and regional facilities.

A three-year federal investigation of Alabama’s prisons by the Justice Department concluded last April with a damning federal report and the threat of a federal lawsuit.

Advocates say gang control and inmate-on-inmate violence are “the predictable and preventable result” of Mississippi’s guard shortage.

The letter claims extended lockdowns may violate inmates’ rights by leaving inmates “in conditions amounting to solitary confinement without access to basic privileges including recreation, showers, and visitation.”

The SPLC says sworn statements from South Mississippi Correctional Institution inmates attest that gangs control when and were inmates eat, sleep, use the phone and shower, fine people who break gang-written rules, and even conduct their own strip searches to locate stolen contraband. Sworn statements also say gang members at the Leakesville prison control the distribution of prison food, mattresses and blankets.