Five Prisioners have Died Inside a Mississippi Jail In Ten Days

Guard Tower Barbed Wire Fence Boundary Federal Prison
An armed guard surveys the grounds from the railing of a prison watchtower

Since December 29, Terrandance Dobbins, Walter Gates, Gregory Emary, Roosevelt Holliman and Denorris Howell have all been killed in prisons across the state. Dozens of videos have leaked to social media showing chaotic scenes of fires and violence inside the prisons.

Businesswoman and reality TV star Yandy Smith shared nearly half a dozen videos and images compiled from different sources on social media that allegedly came from inmates inside the prison. Within hours, her post racked up thousands of views and garnered a huge response on Instagram and other social media sites.

Until Freedom also shared videos from inside the prison on their Instagram page as well.

The Mississippi Department of Correction addressed the incidents in a Friday statement.

โ€œFour inmates have died and several have been injured at two state prisons and one regional during major disturbances since Sunday,” the statement read. “One death occurred at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution, (SMCI) in Leakesville, two at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (MSP) at Parchman, and one at the Chickasaw County Regional Correctional Facility (CCRF) in Houston, Miss. MDOC investigators have determined a fifth death and a minor fire, both at MSP, are unrelated to the major disturbances.โ€

While state officials claimed the entire situation went south because of an alleged gang war, prisoners, as well as activists, said prison guards did little to protect incarcerated people and that the conditions inside the prisons had been unacceptable long before this recent violence.

Hundreds of people on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter criticized prison officials for trying to shift the media focus onto two prisoners who had escaped rather than the condition and violence within the prisons.

An inspection conducted in June by the Mississippi State Department of Health found that despite decades of complaints and lawsuits, little had been done to rid Parchman of the hazardous, unconscionable conditions that routinely led to the deaths of a number of individuals incarcerated at the prison.

The devastating report, which included photos, found widespread Black mold, broken toilets, inoperable sinks and undated food stored inside leaky showers in Parchman.

The vast majority of cells had no lights, no pillows, no mattresses or lacked all three.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections and the offices of Governor Phil Bryant and Governor-elect Tate Reeves did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

But reporters ambushed Bryant on Monday, and the governor was forced to admit that in an effort to stop the violence inside Parchman, the decision had been made to move some prisoners to the “inhumane” Unit 32, which had been shut down in 2010 after a lawsuit by the ACLU.

Bryant made a number of incendiary comments about his priorities and the cause of the violence, claiming the offenders were the reason the prison was kept in such poor condition. 

“The employees of the Department of Corrections are my first concern within the correctional facility. Someone asked who is responsible for what is happening at Parchman. The inmates are. The inmates are the ones that take each other’s lives, the inmates are the ones that fashion weapons out of metal. The inmates are the ones that do the damage to the very rooms they are living in,” Bryant told reporters on Tuesday in a video shared on Instagram by Until Freedom.

“Look to the inmates. There is no one that is perpetrating them to commit crimes inside the walls of the penitentiary,” Bryant added.

The families of those incarcerated at Parchman were livid and terrified to hear Bryant admit that prisoners were now being moved into Unit 32, which became known for its outrageous treatment of prisoners that included being permanently locked in cells for 23 hours a day in 130-degree heat. 

In 2010, Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project Margaret Winter lauded Mississippi for closing the “inhumane” unit, saying, “This facility was truly a dangerous and degrading environment for prisoners and staff alike. The fact that this facility is now being closed is a great end to the long road that we have been on.”

When asked on Tuesday how long prisoners would be held in the reopened Unit 32, the governor deflected and said only certain cells were being used to house some prisoners. A plan would be released to the media at a later date, Bryant said in the interview.

In one of the videos shared on Instagram, a prisoner allegedly inside Unit 32 says, “Condemned man, this motherf**ker be condemned, 10 years. Look at the mildew everywhere, man. We ain’t got no hygiene, no toothbrush, no running water.”

One woman shared a harrowing photo of six prisoners sleeping in a tiny cell inside Unit 32.

Mdoc yall wrong for this

Posted by LaShawnda McGowan on Saturday, January 4, 2020

In a lengthy 2008 article, Winter and lawyer Stephen Hanlon described Unit 32, its conditions and its treatment of those staying there, many of whom had been sent there for minor infractions or for having HIV.

“The death row prisoners described profound isolation, unrelieved idleness and monotony, denial of exercise, intolerable stench and pervasive filth, grossly malfunctioning plumbing, and constant exposure to human excrement. Each cell had a ‘ping-pong’ toilet, allowing waste from one cell to back up into the toilet in the adjoining cell. The temperatures in the cells during the long Delta summers were lethal, with heat indexes, we later proved, of over 130 degrees Fahrenheit,” they wrote.

“The cells were so infested with mosquitoes that inmates had to keep their windows closed and their bodies completely covered even in the hottest weather. Leaking rainwater and foul water from flooded toilets on upper floors soaked inmatesโ€™ beds and personal items; prisoners werenโ€™t provided clean water, soap, and other basic cleaning supplies, even when they were moved into a cell smeared with excrement by the previous tenants. Lighting in the cells was so dim that the prisoners couldnโ€™t see to read, write, groom themselves, or clean their cells. They were denied basic medical, dental, and mental health care. They were exposed day and night to the screams and ravings of severely mentally ill inmates in adjoining cells,” the two added.

Photos shared by the incarcerated individuals now being held in Unit 32 confirmed that the conditions were even worse after the area was condemned and closed for a decade.

According to a report from the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, the state has repeatedly slashed the number of correctional officers at prisons across the state. By the end of last year, there were only 732, which is half the number of guards that were employed by the state just five years ago.  

They have had difficulty hiring prison guards, in no small part, because the salary is just $25,000. The state has also drastically cut the budget for state prisons, all while it has some of the highest incarceration rates in the country.

In their article about Parchman, Winter and Hanlon explained that all of this contributed to a violent atmosphere that prompted both guards and prisoners to be as violent as possible.

“There was a pervasive culture of violence and sadistic use of excessive force. Corrections officers gratuitously beat prisoners already in full restraints. Take-down teams forcibly extracted shackled prisoners from their cells, sprayed them with a chemical agent that causes vomiting and shortness of breath, and then assaulted them again,” they wrote.

“The combination of all these conditions was causing serious mental illness to emerge in previously healthy prisoners, and causing psychosis and complete mental breakdown in less healthy prisoners. Suicides and attempted suicides occurred with alarming frequency,” they said in their report.

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