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Twelve-Year Prison Sentence for Carrying a Cell Phone is “Cruel and Unusual Punishment” Under Constitution's Eighth Amendment

SPLC calls for resentencing of Mississippi man for carrying a phone into a jail

JACKSON, Miss. -- The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a motion for rehearing in the case of Willie Nash, a man who was egregiously sentenced to a 12-year prison sentence for bringing a cell phone into a county jail. The filing argues Nash’s sentence is disproportionate to the crime committed, a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eight Amendment prohibition against  cruel and unusual punishments.  Mr. Nash’s motion for rehearing is due today, January 23, 2020.  

In 2018, Nash, 39, was taken into custody on a misdemeanor charge and booked into Newton County Jail. Nash had a cell phone when he was taken into custody and after being put in jail he handed the phone to a guard and asked if it could be charged. Nash was charged with illegally possessing a cell phone and given a 12-year prison sentence even though it is a victimless crime.

Nash, a husband and father of three, is now in jail until February 2029. SPLC will ask the Mississippi Supreme Court to reconsider its previous ruling upholding the 12-year sentence. In the original appeal, Nash argued that the sentence was "grossly disproportionate to the crime." 

“Mr. Nash did nothing wrong,” said Will Bardwell, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The Newton County Jail’s policy is to strip-search everyone when they arrive, but the jail violated its policy by failing to search Mr. Nash; if they had, they would have found and taken his cell phone.”

“Nash never attempted to conceal his cell phone and the only reason that authorities found out about it is because Nash gave it to a guard,” Bardwell said.

The motion for rehearing argues that Nash didn’t voluntarily possess his cell phone in jail because he was not searched as the jail’s policy required. It also argues that a 12-year sentence violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and the Mississippi Constitution.

At least 36 states allow sentences of no more than five years for possessing a cell phone in prison, and several states do not punish cell phone possession with jail time at all, according to research done by the SPLC. 

This legislative session, the SPLC is advocating for changing Mississippi’s habitual offender law that needlessly extends sentences for nonviolent offenders and statutes like the one Nash’s was indicted under that make it possible for a person to receive fifteen years for simply possessing a cell phone.  The SPLC will also advocate for restoring the possibility of parole for thousands of people and investing in meaningful rehabilitative and reentry programs.

“No other state in America punishes behavior like Mr. Nash’s as excessively as Mississippi,” said Bardwell.  “Mr. Nash is why we need to address excessive sentencing as part of reforming our criminal justice system.” 

Nash’s case has generated significant national media attention due to the severity of the sentence. 

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The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Alabama with offices in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. For more information, visit www.splcenter.org.