Federal investigation opened into Mississippi prisons after series of deaths

William Paul Ellis | Staff Writer

  For more than a century, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, most commonly known as “Parchman,” has served as the only maximum security prison for men in the state of Mississippi.

Now, after 16 inmate deaths in less than two months, the Department of Justice has agreed to open a civil rights investigation into the conditions of Parchman and other regional prisons including the South Mississippi Correctional Institution, the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility and the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. According to ABC News, 10 of the 16 recent deaths occured in Parchman, which included five inmates beaten or stabbed by other inmates and three suicides.

Located in Sunflower County, Mississippi, the Parchman prison name is infamous, particularly within African American communities. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Mississippi has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, with an overwhelming number of inmates being black. According to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, as of February 2020, Parchman currently has a capacity of 3,560 and houses approximately 2,700 inmates. 

In January, newly elected Governor Tate Reeves visited Parchman and promised his constituents new policies to improve the conditions of prisons across the state. Reeves also ordered the closing of a Parchman cell unit known for violence. 

“I’ve seen enough. We have to turn the page,” Reeves said in the ABC News report. “This is the first step, and I have asked the department to begin the preparations to make [the closure] happen safely, justly and quickly.”

The governor and Department of Justice’s responses come after much criticism from activists, including rappers Jay-Z and Yo Gotti, who funded a lawsuit against the State of Mississippi and the Mississippi NAACP and Southern Poverty Law Center, who with other organizations petitioned the Department of Justice for an investigation. 

“Those who are incarcerated still deserve basic human rights despite their past mistakes.”

–Kennedy Owens

For Hampton University students who call Mississippi home, the recent publicity surrounding the deaths of Mississippi inmates has been a reminder of the difficulties still present in their home state. 

Cailynn Gregory, a sophomore from Jackson, Mississippi, believes that the prison crisis in Mississippi has only furthered the negative perception held by many concerning the state. 

“As a Mississsippian, and particularly the daughter of a civil rights attorney, I am disheartened by the conditions in Mississippi Prisons,” Gregory said. “It hurts to see the videos and pictures on social media and know that humans are living in those conditions, and that people are losing their families. Mississippi is already last in the country for many things, and seeing inmates being treated as less than humans only heightens the cry for national assistance.” 

Kennedy Owens, also a sophomore from Jackson, Mississippi, views the criticism against the state as warranted due to the long legacy of the mistreatment of inmates in the prison system.

“These events are unacceptable,” Owens said. “Those who are incarcerated still deserve basic human rights despite their past mistakes.”

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