Mississippi inmate vows hunger strike if his sexual assault complaint is not investigated

Published 2:14 pm Thursday, January 11, 2024

by Molly Minta, Mississippi Today
January 11, 2024

A prisoner at the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, a state prison once deemed among the worst for sexual misconduct in the nation, has pledged to go on another hunger strike if the Mississippi Department of Corrections fails to investigate his allegations that a guard inappropriately touched him during a pat down.

The status of Garnett Hughes’ three-month-old complaint is unclear as he has received conflicting information from prison staff, and MDOC wouldn’t comment on the case except to say “the agency is handling this matter in accordance with our policies and procedures.”

Garnett Hughes, who is incarcerated at Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, has pledged to go on a hunger strike if his PREA complaint is not investigated by Jan. 15.

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On Oct. 16, Hughes, 35, filed a grievance alleging that a week earlier, three officers had awoken him in the middle of the night, ordered him out of bed and, while patting Hughes down, touched him “in the wrong area.” When Hughes said “don’t touch me there,” one of the officers allegedly told Hughes to shut his mouth and follow orders before doing it again.

This grievance should have triggered MDOC to conduct an investigation under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal law that requires prisons to maintain “zero tolerance” toward sexual violence.

But Hughes said no one from MDOC ever spoke to him about what happened until early December when — in the midst of a hunger strike Hughes undertook to regain his canteen and phone privileges that he lost after attempting to flee — a nurse practitioner told him the case was closed due to a lack of visual evidence. It’s not clear how the nurse practitioner learned of Hughes’ complaint, which is supposed to be confidential, and he did not receive any formal notification as required under the PREA (pronounced pre-yuh) law.

A few days later, Hughes said another prison staff member told him his complaint was being investigated. Still, no one has contacted Hughes to ask him any questions, such as the name of the officer Hughes alleges violated him, which isn’t noted in his grievance. And, those same officers continue to come to Hughes’s zone, he said.

Now Hughes is pledging to go on another hunger strike if he doesn’t hear anything by Jan. 15 from the Corrections Investigation Division, the office within MDOC that is responsible for investigating complaints of prison rape. Hughes also has a Change.org petition seeking his release.

“I’m putting my trust that they are gonna do their jobs,” Hughes told Mississippi Today, adding,  “but I gave up on asking, and I’m like, whenever the 15th comes, I’m going to go back up on my hunger strike and deal with it that way.”

Hughes’ stance toward MDOC isn’t unusual; many incarcerated people distrust internal processes to resolve their complaints about sexual abuse, which often go unreported, according to the National PREA Resource Center.

In Mississippi, that’s an instinct borne out by the troubled state of MDOC’s facilities which face widespread understaffing, deteriorating infrastructure and a culture of violence. And Walnut Grove, where Hughes has been incarcerated since December 2022, had an especially notorious reputation for horror and violence when it was a private prison, with the Justice Department once finding that “the sexual misconduct we found was among the worst that we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.”

Walnut Grove closed in 2016 but it was reopened by Commissioner Burl Cain in 2021 to house alcohol and substance abuse programs and anyone deemed a gang member.

Data also backs up the lack of trust Hughes and other incarcerated people feel. Under PREA, any allegation of sexual violence toward an incarcerated person — whether in the form of a grievance filed by that person or a call from a third-party source — is supposed to trigger an investigation. But according to state and federal data, when cases are reported, what often happens is: nothing.

At the federal level, a 2022 congressional report found that of more than 5,000 allegations of sexual abuse by Bureau of Prison employees, 134 were substantiated.

In Mississippi, there were 194 allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment by prison staff on incarcerated people between 2012 and 2021, according to reports available on MDOC’s website. Just eight were substantiated. The rate isn’t much better for prisoners who allege they were assaulted by other prisoners: Of 602 allegations, 18 were substantiated.

These numbers don’t include MDOC’s reports from 2014 and 2016, which aren’t available, and 2019 because it contains duplicative numbers from 2018. An MDOC spokesperson said the agency would update its website “to reflect our current PREA statistics.”

There are several reasons why so few allegations of prison rape are substantiated, said Julie Abbate, the national advocacy director at Just Detention International, an organization that aims to end sexual violence in detention facilities. Abbate was part of the working group that helped draft PREA standards.

One reason is that the correctional officers often charged with investigating PREA complaints apply a tougher burden of proof than they are supposed to.

“Because correctional staff have a law enforcement mentality, they often go to the burden of proof of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ which is quite high,” Abbate said. “For administrative investigations, they should only be using a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard.”

Another reason is officers may feel like it’s futile to punish an incarcerated person when they’re already serving prison time. Put differently, every aspect of incarceration, from intake to the fact that guards have total authority over prisoners, can exacerbate conditions that lead to prison rape.

It’s been illegal to rape people forever,” Abbate said. “If you could just criminalize your way out of this issue, it would be done, just like if you could criminalize your way out of the crime problem in the country, it would be done. It doesn’t work on the streets, and it doesn’t work in a correctional facility.”

And prison rape can be difficult to substantiate. In particular, Abbate said allegations like Hughes’ of improper pat downs can be especially tough to prove since pat downs are, by nature, invasive.

Other aspects of Hughes’ case are emblematic of the problems that persist in prisons despite PREA, Abbate said. Most alarming to her is the nurse practitioner who knew Hughes had a complaint and that it was closed.

“Allegations are supposed to be disclosed just on a need-to know basis to avoid any sort of retaliation or rumor-mongering,” she said.

Since PREA complaints are confidential, MDOC isn’t required to share information about Hughes’ case with anyone, including the press. Confidentiality is crucial to protect incarcerated people, but Abbate noted it can backfire in some circumstances.

“It can certainly have unintended consequences when well-intended outsiders are looking at what’s going on on the inside,” she said.

That was the case with Anthony Allen, a former correctional officer who now works as a bail bondsman in south Mississippi and makes YouTube videos about the conditions in MDOC’s prisons. In mid-October, Allen was contacted by a prison-reform advocate who was concerned about Hughes’ case. So, hoping to help, he called Walnut Grove to make a third-party report.

Allen was transferred to CID.

“I’m trying to see if y’all will take the complaint and investigate it,” he told the staff member, according to a recording he made of the call.

“What’s your name?” She asked. “And who do you work for?”

It wasn’t until Allen explained he is still a certified correctional officer that the staff member told him, “I’m gonna get your number and get our investigator to give you a call.”

No one did.

“You could be someone sweeping the floor in the warden’s office,” Allen said. “If you are given a complaint, that is failure to report and that is a big fine and that is something you do not do.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.