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DOJ finds issues with violence, poor conditions in 3 Mississippi jails

The Department of Justice said the state failed to protect inmates' safety, control contraband or investigate harm and misconduct.
DOJ finds issues with violence, poor conditions in 3 Mississippi jails
Posted at 6:51 PM, Feb 28, 2024

Gangs, violence and sexual assaults are a problem in three Mississippi prisons because the facilities are short-staffed and inmates are sometimes left unsupervised, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a report Wednesday.

The department said the state failed to protect inmates' safety, control contraband or investigate harm and misconduct.

"These basic safety failures and the poor living conditions inside the facilities promote violence, including sexual assault," the department said. "Gangs operate in the void left by staff and use violence to control people and traffic contraband."

The department investigated Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, South Mississippi Correctional Institution and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility. The new report says the conditions in those three prisons are similar to problems that the department reported in 2022 at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

"People do not surrender their constitutional rights at the jailhouse door," Kristen Clarke, the department's assistant attorney general for civil rights, said during a news conference Wednesday.

Mississippi Department of Corrections spokesperson Kate Head said in response to the Justice Department report that the state prison system has "worked tirelessly" to increase staffing through pay raises and other measures, including streamlining the hiring process.

"We're grateful for the often thankless work of the men and women of MDOC, and we look forward to continuing our efforts to recruit additional staff," Head said in a statement. "While we disagree with the findings, we will work with the DOJ to identify possible resolutions to enhance inmate safety and continue ongoing efforts to improve operations at MDOC."

The new Justice Department report says "appalling conditions" in restrictive housing practices at the Central Mississippi and Wilkinson prisons cause "substantial risk of serious harm."

"Restrictive housing units are unsanitary, hazardous, and chaotic, with little supervision," the Justice Department said. "They are breeding grounds for suicide, self-inflicted injury, fires, and assaults."

The department said the Mississippi Department of Corrections does not have enough staff to supervise the prison population, with job vacancy rates of 30% to 50%.

"The mismatch between the size of the incarcerated population and the number of security staff means that gangs dominate much of prison life, and contraband and violence, including sexual violence, proliferate," the Justice Department said. "Prison officials rely on ineffective and overly harsh restrictive housing practices for control."

Clarke said that because of "poor door security" and lack of supervision in Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, multiple incarcerated men were able to enter a women's housing unit.

"They stayed and engaged in sexual activity for an extended period," Clarke said. "Although the sexual activity was reportedly consensual, the other women in the unit felt unsafe and were at risk of harm."

One male inmate reported he was sexually assaulted in a shower at South Mississippi Correctional Institution, she said.

"Multiple gang members waited outside the shower area while he was assaulted to prevent others from interceding," Clarke said. "He also reported that he had been previously assaulted at another Mississippi prison and denied protective custody."

About 38% of Mississippi residents are Black, but about 61% of the people in the state's prisons and jails are Black, Clarke said. Speaking of prison conditions, she said: "This is a racial justice issue."

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