- Mississippi's state prison systems erupted into unprecedented violence in what some have called the "bloodiest" year in memory.
- Since December, 24 inmates have died under the watch of Mississippi's Department of Corrections — at one point, five inmates died in just two weeks.
- A new report from the Clarion Ledger found that although Mississippi prison reform once helped catalyze changes across the nation, without federal oversight, its state prison system has regressed into chaos, brutality, and disrepair.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
In a smoke-filled unit at one of Mississippi's state correctional facilities, piles of trash littered the floor and blood from stab wounds were smeared across cells. Some of the prison's most dangerous inmates, marked by their red-and-white striped uniforms, roamed free while other inmates were violently beaten inside cells that were meant to be sealed under prison-wide lockdowns.
The scene was purportedly recorded from inside Mississippi state prisons on contraband cellphones — it painted the grim reality of inmates serving time in the state's deteriorating correctional facilities.
This video and others from inside Mississippi's prison walls went viral on social media after correctional facilities across the state went on lockdown amid eruptions of violent prison riots that began in late December and continued through early January, CBS News reported.
Although Insider has been unable to independently verify the authenticity of these videos, the brutality inside Mississipi's prison walls can be confirmed by the number of deaths that have been reported this year alone.
According to the Clarion Ledger, 2020 is the state prison's "bloodiest year in recent memory" — 24 people died while serving time since December 29, 2019. The MDOC said seven were killed in violent altercations with fellow inmates, three died by suicide, while the rest have been attributed to "unknown or natural causes."
Although the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) blamed the violence ravaging its correctional facilities on gang violence, prison advocates told the Clarion Ledge that years of budget cuts, understaffing, an oversized prison population, and inhumane living conditions have culminated into "an environment that breeds violence."
The astonishing string of deaths garnered national attention and condemnation. In January, rappers Jay-Z and Yo Gotti filed a lawsuit against Mississippi Department of Corrections officials in the wake of five inmates' deaths in two weeks, Insider reported. Reports of the rampant violence prompted the Justice Department to launch an investigation of conditions at four state prisons the following month.
However, the problems with the Magnolia State's prison system are rooted in its history. In a four-part series, the Clarion Ledger documented a history of racism, abuse, and negligence in Mississipi's criminal justice system, dating back to the founding of "Parchman Farms." That prison is now known as Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman — and it's the state's most notorious correctional facility.
Prison advocates call for an end to Parchman's "legacy of despair"
In the century since the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman was opened in 1901, it has become the "face of prison brutality and penal labor," the Clarion Ledger reported.
The conditions in the prison were "immortalized" by pop culture, with blues songs about the "Parchman Farm Blues" and films drawing directly from Parchman's cruel history.
The prison functioned as "a giant prison farm with slaves," according to a historian David Oshinsky, where inmates were segregated by class and race. Inmates toiled in the fields picking cotton, chopping wood, and plowing dirt while the state of Mississippi profited from their free labor (hence, the name "Parchman Farms"). The prison's effectively functioned as a plantation well into the 20th century, until it was shut down by the fallout from the Civil Rights Movement.
Hundreds of civil rights activists were arrested and sent off to Parchman and other state prisons in the 1960s for protesting racism and segregation. Although they faced extensive abuse behind bars, the time they served laid bare the horrific conditions in Mississippi's state prisons.
"The civil rights workers sent to Parchman were hailed as national heroes, survivors of the 'toughest' prison in the nation's most repressive state," Oshinsky wrote in a paper for Yale. "For the first time, the press beyond Mississippi got a good glimpse of a penal farm that was part of Southern legend, yet carefully hidden from public view."
After the penitentiary received national scrutiny, a civil rights lawyer eventually helped Parchman inmates file a lawsuit in 1971, claiming that the prison conditions were unconstitutional — the same argument being made by several lawsuits being filed on behalf of Mississipi inmates today.
The litigation over the lawsuit, called Gates v. Collier, lasted over 40 years and catalyzed a string of positive changes to Mississippi's prison system, including ending punishments, abolishing segregation, and improving living conditions. The landmark case even paved the way for national prison reform, according to the Clarion Ledger.
But in 2011, a federal judge permanently dismissed the groundbreaking lawsuit, arguing that Mississippi had successfully made its prison system more humane.
Mississipi inmates today call the prisons a "death trap"
By 2020, the horrific conditions at facilities under MDOC would once again garner national attention and condemnation.
Walking ankle-deep in open sewage, sleeping alongside rats both dead and alive, and living in fear of prison violence that has left at least 15 people dead this year, inmates at Mississippi state correctional facilities have referred to the prisons as "death traps," CNN reported.
With the end of federal oversight of MDOC in 2011, conditions in Mississippi's correctional systems have once again regressed into disrepair, chaos, and violence.
Images inside the Parchman correctional facility from the state health department and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting show holes behind toilets and water fountains, roaches and garbage in pipes, and open sewage overflowing into prison cells and bathrooms.
Longtime prison-rights lawyer Ron Welch, who has monitored the system for decades, confirmed to the Ledger that the violence and deaths in the last month were "likely unprecedented."
Federal data reveals that Mississippi has the fourth highest prisoner mortality rate of any state, the Ledger reported.
Numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the percentage of homicides in the state are higher than the national average. According to the Ledger, 2.5% of prisoners died at the hands of fellow inmates in state prisons across the country in 2016. In the past three years, MDOC's percentage of homicides was double that, making up about 5% of deaths.
Prison advocates say that the lack of funding is one of many culprits in the swift deterioration of Mississippi state prisons.
In the past decade, Mississippi lawmakers have cut tens of millions of dollars from MDOC's budget, despite appeals from several of MDOC's commissioners for more funding — including its sitting Gov. Tate Reeves who was "appalled" by the issues that garnered national attention and promised to overhaul the MDOC, the Ledger reported.
But local advocates told the Ledger that Reeves is part of the problem. One advocate claimed that Reeves and his fellow career lawmakers chose to give corporate tax breaks and slash the MDOC's budget in his eight years as a state lawmaker instead of "investing in the prison system, which he knew was a ticking time bomb."
Mississippi correctional officers are some of the lowest-paid, with a starting salary of just $25,650. Low pay and long hours have made it difficult to hire prison guards, leaving many of the correctional facilities understaffed and unequipped to handle the brutality within the prison walls.
According to an investigation by the Marshall Project, Mississippi had the second-highest correctional officer vacancy rate with approximately half of all guard positions vacant in the state's three state prisons.
The Ledger noted that the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility actually had more unfilled positions than working officers, while Parchman had only 310 guards on staff of the 583 authorized to be filled.
Without guards to properly staff the correctional facilities, some of the prisons have been put on lockdown for long periods.
Confined to the poor conditions in their units and isolated from their loved ones, Welch says anyone it's only natural for chaos to ensue.
"How would you feel if you were housed in a place where the toilets didn't work, where the sink didn't work when the where the water went out … you had to defecate in a bag because you couldn't flush the toilet? Does that indicate anybody cares about you? If nobody cares about you then there's no hope. What are you going to behave like?" Welch told the Ledger.
"Put 100 church deacons in that situation, Sunday school teachers, and they're going to be fighting with each other," he said.
Read the Clarion Ledger's full four-part series on Mississipi state prisons here>>>
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