Since the end of 2019, 13 deaths in the Mississippi prison system, most at the infamous Parchman Penitentiary, have graphically illustrated the level of crisis in the state’s penal system.
Observers across the political spectrum agree that a perpetual lack of funding is the root problem, causing understaffing and poor prison services.
Yet they disagree about what should be done.
The case against Unit 29
Nine inmates at Parchman have died, and many more have been injured, mostly due to conflicts with other inmates, and suicide.
Conditions are so bad that hip-hop moguls Jay-Z and Yo Gotti have launched a federal lawsuit on behalf of 29 prisoners, mostly in Parchman’s Unit 29, where the state’s most violent inmates are housed.
Their lawyers aver that “cruel and unusual conditions” at the state penitentiary violate the Eighth Amendment.
“Parchman is overcrowded and has insufficient mattresses for its population, leaving inmates sleeping on the floor,” the filing states. “The prison units have been flooded and are now covered in black mold…Toilets back up resulting in floors covered in raw sewage. Electricity and running water are provided only sporadically.”
The 29 plaintiffs are victims of a prison system in free fall.
Mississippi’s state budget includes fewer dollars for prisons every year, and this translates into fewer guards.
The guards that remain are often paid just the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
The Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi’s main newspaper, has documented Parchman’s conditions extensively.
Interviewed prisoners speak of terrible treatment at the hands of the guards, neglected wounds, “mold everywhere,” and abundant rats.
According to Mississippi’s recently departed governor Phil Bryant, the inmates themselves are to blame.
He stated that they “are the ones that take each others’ lives. The inmates are the ones that fashion weapons out of metal. The inmates are the ones that do the damage to the very rooms they are living in.”
However, the Mississippi Department of Corrections, which oversees the state’s prisons, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, a prominent human rights organization, both focus the blame on the insufficient funding.
A crisis of race and poverty
The wider crisis of poverty in Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the nation, has been accompanied in recent decades by one of the nation’s highest rates of imprisonment.
Prisoners are overwhelmingly black, and thousands are in jail on minor offenses.
To add insult to injury — over 50 percent of all those incarcerated have not even been convicted.
They simply had no way of making bail.
Mississippi’s crisis mirrors a broader condition in American prisons, even where funding has increased.
Some pundits suggest that the attitude of Governor Bryant reflects widespread beliefs in American society that “torture” as defined in the 8th Amendment is an apt punishment for their crimes.