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Weekend Read: Department of Justice may force Mississippi to fix deadly prison system

Walker Gates. Roosevelt Holliman. Denorris Howell. Gregory Emary. Terrandance Dobbins.

These are the people who senselessly lost their lives amidst deadly violence between Dec. 29 and Jan. 3 while in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections

MDOC failed to keep them safe.

Since December, 15 incarcerated people have died in the state’s prisons.  

These deaths were not unforeseeable. For years, the death rate in Mississippi’s prison system has been among the highest in the nation. With nearly 20,000 people locked up in its prisons, the state has the third-highest incarceration rate in the country. 

But, because of a lack of funding to sustain its system of mass incarceration, the prisons often operate with only about half the necessary staff. It’s a recipe for deadly violence the state has yet to seriously address. Despite enacting some reforms that have modestly reduced the prison population, the state has slashed correctional spending by $185 million over the last five years – and more cuts to the state budget have been recommended.

That’s why in the wake of the deadly violence in recent weeks, the SPLC urged the U.S. Department of Justice in January to investigate Mississippi’s prison system. In a letter also signed by U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson and other civil rights advocates, we outlined the state’s failures, which are likely violations of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it is launching an investigation into four Mississippi prisons. It was a remarkably swift response by the federal government, which we hope signals the DOJ will do what the Mississippi Department of Corrections has failed to do – end the violence and ensure humane living conditions.

It’s also an encouraging sign that the federal government is taking action in the Deep South, where the history of these prison systems are rooted in slavery and oppression – vestiges of which persist today. The DOJ’s announcement in Mississippi comes after it threatened to sue Alabama last year because its prisons are beset by “rampant violence,” “unchecked extortion” and “severe and widespread sexual abuse” – conditions that also likely violate the Eighth Amendment. 

The DOJ’s threat against Alabama came after the SPLC sued the state over the widespread neglect of people with medical, mental health and disability needs. A federal judge in that case ruled in June 2017 that mental health care provided to Alabama prisoners is “horrendously inadequate” due to overcrowding and understaffing. Another order requires the Alabama Department of Corrections to add about 2,000 correctional officers over the next few years. The medical phase of the suit is still pending.

Clearly, as one can see in Mississippi and Alabama, there is far more work ahead to reform the Deep South’s prisons. A fairer criminal justice system and large reductions in prison populations are imperative. Such reforms won’t be easy, and they likely won’t come without more battles in courtrooms and legislatures, but state leaders are increasingly finding they can no longer ignore their broken prison systems and the lives they destroy.

Photo by Rogelio V. Solis/AP Images