SPLC lawsuit: Massive human rights violations at Mississippi prison

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of prisoners at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, describing the for-profit prison as a filthy, dangerous facility “operating in a perpetual state of crisis” where prisoners are at “grave risk of death and loss of limbs” and often resort to setting fires to receive medical attention. 

The class-action lawsuit describes how prison officials have known of these conditions for years but failed to protect the health and safety of prisoners. The facility in Meridian, Miss., is supposed to provide intensive treatment to the state’s seriously mentally ill prisoners, many of whom are locked down in long-term solitary confinement.

The facility is operated by the Management and Training Corporation with health care provided by Health Assurance, LLC. The lawsuit was announced at a rally this morning calling for more oversight of the state’s privately operated prisons. 

“The issues found at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility represent a long history of inhumane prison conditions in which the state has allowed private prison operators to mistreat and abuse people,” said Jody Owens II, managing attorney for the SPLC’s Mississippi office. “As we remember the tragic costs associated with private prison operators, we must demand more oversight of these facilities.” 

This video tells the story of a man at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility who hanged himself after repeated requests for help.

The lawsuit describes a facility where prisoners are often locked in filthy cells and ignored even when they are suffering from serious medical issues. Many cells lack light and working toilets, forcing prisoners to use trays or plastic bags that are tossed through slots in their cell doors. Rats often climb over prisoners’ beds. Some prisoners even capture the rats, put them on makeshift leashes and sell them as pets to other prisoners.

Although designated as a facility to care for prisoners with special needs and serious mental illness, the East Mississippi Correctional Facility denies prisoners even the most rudimentary mental health care services. One prisoner is now blind after the facility failed to provide his glaucoma medications and take him to a specialist. Another prisoner had part of his finger amputated after he was stabbed and developed gangrene.

Prisoners also are underfed. According to the lawsuit, a correctional health expert notified the Mississippi Department of Corrections of this problem after reviewing prisoner records that showed a pattern of prisoners losing significant amounts of weight at the prison – some more than 20 or 30 pounds. 

Despite evidence demonstrating the adverse effect of long-term solitary confinement on prisoners’ mental health, the prison continues to place prisoners in isolation for weeks, months or years at a time with little stimulation or access to showers and medical care. Prisoners in solitary confinement frequently set fires or flood their cells to get attention for medical treatment.

“Solitary confinement is a difficult thing for anyone to handle but it is especially challenging for a person suffering from mental illness,” said Alesha Judkins, senior advocate at the SPLC. “Prisoners who suffer from hallucinations report that isolation absent treatment and stimulation exacerbates their condition and impacts their overall health.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Law Office of Elizabeth Alexander are serving as co-counsel on the case.