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Trial begins in SPLC lawsuit over horrific conditions at private Mississippi prison for mentally ill people

A trial begins today to stop the mistreatment of people in a for-profit Mississippi prison where mentally ill individuals, who are at risk of death and loss of limbs, have resorted to setting their cells on fire to receive medical attention.

The federal lawsuit that prompted the trial in Jackson describes how prison officials have known of the dangerous conditions at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF) for years, but failed to protect the health and safety of people who are incarcerated there.

The prison houses nearly 1,300 seriously mentally ill people. The class-action lawsuit was filed by the SPLC in 2013 with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Law Office of Elizabeth Alexander, and Covington & Burling LLP.

“Over the course of this trial, we will show how the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) and a for-profit prison company perpetrated sickening abuses on mentally ill individuals at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility,” said Jody Owens, SPLC managing attorney for Mississippi. “Mississippians will be outraged and disgusted by the evidence we have collected and the stories we will tell. No human being should be forced to endure such barbaric and torturous treatment.”

The lawsuit details life in an intensely violent prison where cells frequently lack working lights or functioning toilets, creating dungeon-like conditions. There are not enough guards to staff the prison, so prison gangs maintain what little order there is instead. Incarcerated people may be forced to go weeks without bathing. Four people have died in the first two months of 2018 alone.

The prison is operated by Utah-based Management and Training Corporation, one of the largest operators of private prisons in the United States. Centurion provides health care to people who are incarcerated there.

“These companies have been paid millions of Mississippi taxpayer dollars. They have brought in record profits as seriously mentally ill people have suffered in both physical and mental agony, and MDOC has repeatedly failed to hold these providers accountable,” said Elissa Johnson, senior staff attorney at the SPLC.

The lawsuit also describes how incarcerated people who are at risk of suicide are observed for a few days in the facility’s infirmary. Then they are often returned to dangerous conditions in solitary confinement, where they may spend 24 hours a day without light, in a room no larger than a bathroom.

About 120 people stay in solitary for more than three months at a time in darkness, according to court filings. Solitary confinement is increasingly recognized as torture under both U.S. and international law.

Dr. Marc F. Stern, a board-certified internist specializing in correctional care, documented the indifference with which prison staff treated an incarcerated man with serious mental illness and dire heart problems in 2013.

A prison counselor observed that the man was “trying to cut himself with a small dull object and had a long rope tied around his neck,” Stern wrote in a report for the SPLC. The man told the counselor that his heart was hurting, and that he didn’t have a reason to live.

However, the counselor concluded that the man was fine, and walked away. No mental health professional saw him again for nine more days. He was found dead in his cell.

A registered nurse noted in his medical chart that the patient’s vital signs were stable and he was in no acute distress. At the time that note was written, the man had been dead for 10 hours.

“This went beyond any deliberate indifference I have seen in my entire career,” Stern wrote. “It is the definition of intentional patient abandonment.”

Correctional officers also allow the savage beating of people in prison.

A plaintiff was attacked by imprisoned people after another incarcerated person disabled the lock on his cell door, according to court records. Other incarcerated people disabled the locks on their own cell doors, allowing them to come and go as they pleased.

After officers left the area for the day, an incarcerated man took the plaintiff to another cell where four incarcerated people “viciously beat him and stomped on his face,” according to court records. The attack was captured by the prison’s security cameras.

However, the officer in the control tower did nothing to intervene, even though he had access to footage of the beating and the electronic system that shows which cell doors are open. Twenty-four hours after the beating, the plaintiff had not received medical attention. He had to resort to setting multiple fires in his cell to get medical attention.

“EMCF is an embarrassment to this state, and long overdue for change,” Owens said.