[Pnews] Death Toll Increases as Mississippi Stays in Prison Limbo

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sun Feb 2 08:53:56 EST 2020

Toll Increases as Mississippi Stays in Prison Limbo
Liliana Segura - February 1, 2020

*Hundreds of people* stood in front of a stage in downtown Jackson,
Mississippi, waiting for the rally to start, when a woman’s voice rang
through the crowd. “What we gonna do?” she shouted. *“SHUT IT DOWN!”* the
crowd yelled back.

“What we gonna do?”


“What we gonna do?”


The protesters had gathered at the intersection of Mississippi and North
Congress, in the shadow of the state Capitol. Hip-hop blared from the
speakers, activists circulated leaflets, and posters carried messages for
the news cameras clustered on a nearby platform. One read: “Somebody’s
hurting our people and we won’t be silent anymore.”

Just before noon, activist Sharon Brown took the mic. A member of the
Prison Reform Coalition <https://www.facebook.com/MsPRC> — and leader in
the recent push to change the state flag — she traced the crisis across the
state’s prisons to its legacy of slavery, brutally embodied by the
Mississippi State Penitentiary, known as Parchman Farm. For more than 100
years, Parchman has been the site of forced labor, a plantation where
incarcerated men still work in the fields. In recent weeks, photos and
videos from contraband phones had exposed rat-infested cells, unusable
toilets, and graphic evidence of medical neglect. As the images went viral,
an outbreak of violence and a slew of deaths between December and
mid-January thrust Mississippi prisons into the national spotlight.

Protesters rally against the conditions at Parchman State Penitentiary in
front of the Mississippi State Capitol building on Jan. 24, 2020. At the
rally, Eva Scott, left/top, displayed a photograph of her nephew, Antonio
Taylor, who was incarcerated at Parchman and was found dead in his cell in
December of 2019.Photos: Andrea Morales

“I wanna thank those brothers behind the walls that had the courage to let
the world know of the injustices,” Brown said. “To let the world know that
they are beaten, broken, tired.” The latest death had been reported just
two days earlier, on Wednesday, January 22. According to the Mississippi
Department of Corrections
49-year-old Thomas Lee was found hanging in his cell that morning, inside
Parchman’s Unit 29. This brought the death tally to 10 in less than a
month. In the meantime, many families had not heard from their loved ones
since the upheaval began.

Sallye House stood in the front row, in gloves, a winter hat, and a T-shirt
reading “FIX YOUR PRISONS.” She had made the two-hour drive to Jackson from
Batesville, with her daughter and son-in-law. It was her second protest in
two weeks. At a vigil <https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=729870520874853>
outside Parchman on January 11, she described how the toilet in her son’s
cell had been broken for months, forcing him to urinate and defecate in
plastic bags.

House carried a red folder containing copies of letters she had written to
local officials over the years, begging for help for her 38-year-old son,
Alchello. “My sole reason for reaching out to you is my son’s HEALTH and
WELFARE,” House wrote in one letter from July 2016. Alchello had been
transferred to Parchman after being violently attacked at a different
prison. House had begged for him to be moved but was horrified when he was
sent to Parchman, where he had been stabbed by a gang member years before.
It was also Parchman where Alchello had contracted sarcoidosis, an
inflammatory disease affecting the lungs and other organs — and where he
was now being denied adequate medical care. “Please send someone to his
cell and take a look at his appearance,” House wrote. “His face is skin and
bones. His neck and chest bones are sticking out.”

[image: sallye-house-1580417469]

Sallye House, left, at the march in Jackson on Jan. 24, 2020. She carried a
photo of her son, Alchello House, who is incarcerated at Parchman.

Photos: Liliana Segura/The Intercept

Her next letters sounded even more urgent. “Dear Sir or Madam, I need your
help desperately!” House wrote in January 2017. For almost six months, she
said, her son’s unit had constantly been on lockdown, meaning he could not
buy food from the prison canteen, which he relied upon to supplement the
meager portions provided by MDOC. She included pictures — “it is a matter
of life and death.” The last letter, from January 2018, revealed Achello
had thyroid cancer. “If he dies while suffering in these conditions there
will be NOTHING done about it. That is why I am asking to move him BEFORE
something happens to him.” Yet two years later, Alchello remained in Unit

The rally lasted three hours. The speeches were brief and raw, testimony
steeped in trauma and righteous anger. There were demands for
accountability and calls for action — to contact legislators, to vote, to
demand that Parchman be closed. But there was also an overwhelming sense of
a deeper problem, too vast for words like “reform.” There were too many
familiar stories, too many mothers like House, exhausted from years spent
screaming into the void. “I’m just really emotional,” said Ann Adams from
the stage. Her son was healthy when he went to prison in 2012, she said,
but now he had seizures and suffered from malnutrition. She had not seen
him in nine years.

Vera Young nodded in recognition throughout the rally. “That’s what’s
happening to my son,” she said. She had come downtown in blue hospital
scrubs, ready for her work shift later that day. As the rally wound down,
she told me that her son is also housed in Unit 29. A case manager had said
that he was OK, but she had not heard from him in weeks. “He’s always told
me, from the time he’s been at Parchman, ‘Mama, if you don’t hear from me,
there’s something wrong with me.’”

[image: A solitary cell in Unit 32 of the Mississippi State Penitentiary,
the state's super-maximum-security prison, in Parchman, Miss., Feb. 27,
2012. A growing number of states are rethinking the use of long-term
isolation for inmates after the conditions at Unit 32 prompted a lawsuit
that led to the unit's closing. (Josh Anderson/The New York Times)]

A solitary cell in Unit 32 of the Mississippi State Penitentiary, the
state’s super-maximum security prison, in Parchman, Miss., on Feb. 27, 2012.

Photo: Josh Anderson/The New York Times via Redux
An Escalating Crisis

It was not long ago that Mississippi’s criminal justice system was hailed
as a burgeoning success story: a state that went from decades of federal
prison monitoring to a model
for reform. In 2010, following years of litigation by the American Civil
Liberties Union, MDOC finally shut down
Parchman’s Unit 32, where men had been held in punishing isolation for 23
hours a day. Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps was lauded for
reducing the number of people in solitary confinement across the state,
“saving money, lives, and sanity,” as the New York Times wrote
in 2012. Then, in 2013, Mississippi legislators voted to create the
bipartisan Corrections and Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force, whose
policy recommendations would save millions in taxpayer money by reducing
recidivism — and forestalling a ballooning prison population that had grown
by 300 percent over 30 years.

But the promised changes never took root. Epps was arrested
on corruption charges in 2014. And the state’s nascent criminal justice
reforms unraveled before they had even begun. Last year, an investigative
series <https://www.propublica.org/series/locked-down> by ProPublica and
the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting revealed
that the millions that were supposed to be reinvested to improve reentry
had instead been used to cover corporate tax breaks. “Meanwhile the number
of prisoners is creeping back up, and the lack of funding and staff is
contributing to worsening conditions.”

Today, one of the biggest problems plaguing Mississippi’s prisons — cited
by families and officials alike — is a dangerous lack of qualified staff.
The number of guards has gone down from almost 1,600 in 2014 to 731,
according to the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. Starting
salaries are the lowest in the country, creating further incentive to
smuggle and sell contraband cell phones.

[image: A shield used by guards next to a cell door in Unit 32 of the
Mississippi State Penitentiary, the state's super-maximum-security prison,
in Parchman, Miss., Feb. 27, 2012. A growing number of states are
rethinking the use of long-term isolation for inmates after the conditions
at Unit 32 prompted a lawsuit that led to the unit's closing. (Josh
Anderson/The New York Times)]

A shield used by guards is propped next to a cell door in Unit 32 of
Parchman on Feb. 27, 2012.

Photo: Josh Anderson/The New York Times via Redux

But while officials have long decried the phones as enabling criminality —
particularly by prison gangs — it’s no secret that the phones are a crucial
lifeline for those on both sides of the walls. Phone calls can be
prohibitively expensive — and families describe a constant lack of
information from official channels. It was only because of cell phones that
the public learned of a disturbing development in early January: The MDOC
had quietly reopened
Parchman’s Unit 32. A photo had gone viral on social media, showing five
men in striped prison jumpsuits lying on the ground in a filthy cell.
Lawyers later confirmed that the images came from the long-shuttered
housing unit, where clients said they were being forced to sleep on the
concrete floor and denied showers, food, and running water.

The escalating crisis was made even worse by a lack of leadership among
state officials. The upheaval began with a spate of violent incidents in
the last days of 2019, before Mississippi’s newly elected governor, Tate
Reeves, was sworn into office. Three deaths at three different prisons led
to a statewide lockdown on New Year’s Eve. That same day, MDOC Commissioner
Pelicia Hall announced
would resign. As the lockdown continued, hundreds of men were moved from
Parchman to a facility in Tutwiler, run by private prison giant CoreCivic.
“During the entire process, the inmates’ needs have been met,” the MDOC
said in a press release.

On January 17, activists and community members packed a room inside the
state Supreme Court for a regularly scheduled meeting of the Corrections
and Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force. The death toll inside the
prisons stood at five. The lockdown had been lifted at all prisons except
Parchman, where hundreds of men were still awaiting a transfer, according
to MDOC. In the meantime, a high-profile lawsuit had been filed
in federal court, while a second prison official announced
his retirement.

“At least a few of the task force members appeared to be caught off guard
by the public’s interest in their meeting,” wrote
Clarion Ledger. Judge Prentiss Harrell stressed the progress in the state
since its policies became law in 2014, including a savings of almost $50
million. While unfortunately the money had not yet gone to increased wages
of prison staff or improvements in the facilities, Harrell said, he thought
the legislature would be open to such things in the coming session. “We do
believe the pendulum is swinging.”

Yet the focus on funding tends to eclipse an obvious factor that has driven
the crisis in Mississippi’s prisons: too many people in prison for too
long. Activists had long pushed for meaningful sentencing and parole
reforms in Mississippi, including revising the state’s habitual offender
law and making it easier to grant early release to “geriatric inmates.”
Although the task force seemed open to such ideas, it was unclear whether
lawmakers would heed the call. The crisis had inspired no-nonsense
rhetoric, including from former governor Phil Bryant. “Someone asked
earlier ‘Who’s responsible for what’s happening at Parchman?’” he told
reporters in early January. “The inmates. The inmates are the ones that
take each other’s 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
that they’re living in.”

On January 23, the day after the Mississippi Prison Reform
Coalition announced the rally in Jackson, Gov. Tate Reeves held a news
at the state Capitol. In glasses and a dark windbreaker emblazoned with the
Mississippi state seal, Reeves read from a prepared statement, announcing
that he had visited two of the state prisons in the past 24 hours. One was
Parchman; the other was Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, which has stood
empty since 2016. The governor was considering transferring men out of
Parchman and into Walnut Grove, which would be privately run. “The majority
of the prison can hold inmates as early as tomorrow,” he said.

But like reopening Unit 32, moving people to a private prison seemed like
an obvious step in the wrong direction. The former juvenile facility run by
GEO Group had closed after a federal investigation exposed harrowing
conditions, including sexual misconduct by staff described as “among the
worst that we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.” One judge
famously wrote
that Walnut Grove “paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized
anywhere in the civilized world.”

Reeves acknowledged that there had been problems at the facility in the
past. But he gave a practical explanation for the idea. The cell walls at
Walnut Grove were made of poured concrete rather than cinder blocks, he
said, which would make it harder to pass contraband.

“A lot of these things will seem like common sense,” he said. “That’s
because they are.”

[image: The Mississippi State Penitentiary, where Eddie Lee Howard Jr. has
been on death row for two decades for the murder and rape of an 84-year-old
woman, in Parchman, Miss., Sept. 10, 2014. A disputed bite-mark
identification is at the center of Howard?s appeal, which cites that the
method used in the obscure field of forensic dentistry is unreliable, due
to be filed on Monday with the Mississippi Supreme Court. (Andrea
Morales/The New York Times)]

The Mississippi State Penitentiary, known as Parchman Farm, in Parchman,
Miss., on Sept. 10, 2014.

Photo: Andrea Morales/The New York Times via Redux
Worsening Conditions

I last visited Parchman in 2016, as part of a tour organized through an
academic conference at Ole Miss. The prison offers tours to schools,
churches, and other groups, and the visit was carefully curated. Prison
personnel welcomed our group into a visitor’s center containing rocking
chairs and vases of fake flowers, along with a display of contraband
collected over the years — shanks made from pens, spoons, and other
materials. “They make ’em out of anything,” the guide said.

A tour bus drove our group across the prison’s sprawling grounds, passing
fields where men harvest crops. The fieldwork is supposed to address
“inmate idleness,” according to MDOC, as well as providing healthy food.
“They do squash, broccoli, greens,” the guide said. After providing a
hearty lunch — grilled shrimp, teriyaki green beans, and pecan cobbler —
the food services director shared a story of a man who trained under him
while incarcerated at Parchman. “He’s been released and is cooking in
Memphis,” he said proudly.

There was at least one moment of blunt honesty during the tour. It came
from a man 40 years into a life sentence, who spoke to the group about the
need for education programs. “There is no rehabilitation in Mississippi,”
he said. “Don’t kid yourself.” In the decades he had been at Parchman,
sentences had gotten harsher — in Mississippi and across the country —
while program after program had been stripped away. There used to be a
choir, a radio station, a print shop, he said. “All of that’s gone.”

One woman on the tour became emotional remembering her childhood trips to
Parchman, where she would see her father in what was known as extended
visitation — weekendlong visits where incarcerated men could spend more
time with their families. Mississippi ended the practice in 2012. Then, in
2014, MDOC put an end to conjugal visits. The risk of pregnancies was a
concern, our guide explained. “Who’s going to take care of that child?”

In a state that claims to want to reduce recidivism, however, eliminating
such programs has undoubtedly done more harm than good. Studies have long
shown that stronger ties to family increase the likelihood of success after
prison. And those previously incarcerated in Mississippi say that
curtailing visitation and other programs have made a dehumanizing
experience even worse. Al Coleman was at Parchman in the 1990s, during the
time that many states began to eliminate educational opportunities inside
prisons. He worked in the fields, picking cotton, potatoes, and okra. Such
labor was supposed to keep violence at bay, but Coleman saw rapes and
killings during his time there.

“Prison has always been violent,” he said. “It’s like walking into a zone
with a bunch of time bombs waiting to explode. … If you’re being treated
like you’re nothing, like you’re a dog, an animal, and you’re not getting
the right amount of food, water, you don’t have no way to use the restroom,
the frustration constantly builds.” The main difference he sees now is that
people on the outside can see the evidence for themselves.

[image: cedric-young-1580418199]

Jessica Young, left, and her mother, Kathy King Roberson, at the march in
Jackson, Mississippi, on Jan. 24, 2020.

Photo: Liliana Segura/The Intercept

On the day after the rally in Jackson, Jessica Young went to visit her
brother, Cedric, at Marshall County Correctional Facility, a private prison
run by the Utah-based Management and Training Corporation. He’d been
transferred to MCCF from Parchman months earlier, but the conditions were
not much better. The visitation room was freezing; her brother said it was
much colder in the housing units.

Cedric was convicted in 2017 for a crime he swore he did not commit. When
he first got to prison, he was not given a change of clothes for months.
Photos revealed disgusting meal trays, dull-colored clumps of food
impossible to identify. “We were scared to post them because we didn’t want
anything to happen to him,” Young said. But now that the images are out in
the open. They are less afraid.

The visit lasted from 11 until around 2:30. Later that night, she heard
from her brother again. He told her that he had returned to his unit to
find out that a man had died at the prison that day. “The whole time we
were in visitation with him, there was an inmate in the back, dead,” Young
said. A cell phone video captured the scene; men calling out for attention
while the lifeless body laid there. Guards are supposed to do routine
checks of each housing units, but there was nobody answering. “It’s
devastating,” Young said. The problems were much bigger than Parchman, much
bigger than Unit 29. “The entire MDOC as a whole is hitting rock-bottom.”

The man who died was later identified as 38-year-old Jermaine
Tyler. The next day, another death was reported at Parchman: 26-year-old
Joshua Norman, a man from Young’s hometown. Then, two
deaths, at two different prisons across the state: 28-year-old Limarion
Reaves on January 29, followed by 52-year-old Nora Ducksworth at MCCF, on
the 30th. In total, 14 men died in Mississippi prisons since December 29.

In the meantime, the governor gave his first
State of the State address at the state Capitol. He had a big announcement.
“I have instructed the Mississippi Department of Corrections to begin the
necessary work to start closing Parchman’s most notorious unit, Unit 29,”
he said. Although logistical questions remained, he said, “I have seen
enough. We have to turn the page.”
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