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Mississippi inmate deaths expose a corrections system in crisis

In a single week, five people incarcerated in Mississippi jails have died at the hands of other inmates. The deaths have highlighted a system in dire condition, suffering from staffing problems and deteriorating facilities. Jerry Mitchell, founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, joins William Brangham to discuss funding challenges, lack of oversight and inmate overcrowding.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Within just one week, in prisons across Mississippi, five inmates have died at the hands of other prisoners.

    The killings have highlighted a system with serious problems, even beyond just this brutal violence.

    William Brangham has more.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Amna.

    Those deaths were just the tip of the iceberg. From staffing problems to crumbling facilities, Mississippi's correctional system is in a dire situation that puts prisoners and guards at risk.

    Jerry Mitchell is the founder of Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, and he's been investigating conditions in Mississippi prisons with a grant from ProPublica. And he joins me now.

    Jerry, thank you very much for doing this.

    I wonder. In your series, you talk about several different prisons and problems in them, but you really focus on one particular prison in Parchman, Mississippi.

    Can you tell us a little bit about what you found there?

  • Jerry Mitchell:

    Well, we found just a host of problems.

    You have everything from just like the drinking water has had nearly 100 major violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the photographs of birds eating off the food trays of inmates, some of the drains, that it's just garbage disposals backed up in the kitchen and a kitchen door with a big crack in it, so flies and mosquitoes can easily — and roaches can get in.

    And you can't imagine some of these conditions. It looks like a Third World prison, to be honest with you, some of the details of it.

    Then you have had these deaths. Since July, there have been seven — seven homicides inside Parchman Prison, so — and then five suicides, too. So it's had a host of problems.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, you have been reporting on Mississippi prisons for a very, very long time. Can you help us understand why, in the 21st century, are we still seeing conditions like this?

  • Jerry Mitchell:

    They haven't funded it, to be honest.

    I mean, they have cut, the Mississippi Department of Corrections, essentially about $185 million over the past five years. And so, if they had just stayed level, they would have had $185 million more. So it's just a lot of awful conditions, no staffing. The vacancy rate is like 50 percent. Just all sorts of horrible things going on.

  • William Brangham:

    Mississippi's Governor Phil Bryant, when he was asked about some of this recent violence, blamed it largely on gang activity going on inside the prisons.

    How true is that?

  • Jerry Mitchell:

    You could say, in terms of the most recent events, it was, in fact, a gang war going on.

    But inmates and their families have been expressing their frustrations to me for years.

    And about the conditions getting worse, did a whole package of stories in 2014 on these prisons, and I just kept hearing back from these families and inmates, it's getting worse, it's not getting better, it's getting worse.

    You would think, they had this corruption scandal. The head of the Corrections Department went off to prison. You would think the prisons would get better, but, instead, what happened is the Mississippi legislature decided to basically quit funding them.

  • William Brangham:

    And I understand that there was federal oversight — this is from your reporting — that there was federal oversight of the prison for a long time.

  • Jerry Mitchell:

    Yes, that's correct.

  • William Brangham:

    But then Mississippi apparently got its act together, and then the feds backed off, and then I guess that's when these problems got worse.

  • Jerry Mitchell:

    Yes.

    And, in 2011 — basically, Mississippi, for almost 40 years was under federal court oversight, monitoring, and so they would have these regular health reports, you know, other reports on various parts of the prison, the conditions of the prison. And then, if things weren't fixed, then , obviously, the federal judge could step in and say, hey, wait a minute, you need to fix this.

    In 2012, there were no cells without lights or power. Today, there are more than 300 cells without lights or power. And so you have inmates that are literally in the dark, and you have day rooms where it's in the dark.

    And so, if you're a guard, that's a dangerous situation. If you're an inmate, it's a dangerous situation, so — not to mention the conditions can obviously affect behavior as well.

    And so I think, from what I'm hearing from the inmates, they are very frustrated. And so I think, to some extent, these were — it was a boiling over of frustrations as well.

  • William Brangham:

    A few months ago, I talked with Oklahoma's governor about a recent release he had done of several hundred nonviolent low-level prisoners to sort of reduce overcrowding there.

  • Jerry Mitchell:

    Right.

  • William Brangham:

    Has that kind of a thing been suggested in Mississippi?

  • Jerry Mitchell:

    Yes, it has.

    There is a suggestion of taking basically the low-level drug, like possession, felony drug possession, and retroactively turning it into a misdemeanor, which would — free the estimates would be that would affect about 2,000 prisoners that would be — that would go free.

    And, obviously, that would help to ease the situation there in terms of crowding.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Jerry Mitchell from the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, thank you very, very much.

  • Jerry Mitchell:

    Thank you.

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