DOJ Announces Investigation Into Mississippi’s Prisons After MCJ Calls for Intervention

February 10, 2020

On January 7, the Mississippi Center for Justice joined several other organizations and Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson in a letter requesting that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) open an investigation into Mississippi’s prison system in light of what the letter called the “acute and undeniable crisis” in the prisons.  The letter cited a spate of recent deaths of prisoners, severe overcrowding and understaffing that has led to pervasive violence, and horrific living conditions.

On February 5, the DOJ announced it is launching the investigation, which will encompass four of Mississippi’s largest prisons:  The Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, the South Mississippi Correctional Institute, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, and the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.  The DOJ said the investigation will focus primarily on “whether the Mississippi Department of Corrections adequately protects prisoners from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners at the four prisons.”  The DOJ noted that “[t]he Department has conducted . . . investigations of many correctional systems, and where violations have been found, the resulting settlement agreements have led to important reforms.”  

MCJ has been working with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the MacArthur Center for Justice in pushing for prison reform and monitoring conditions as Mississippi’s new Governor and the legislature respond to the crisis. Together, we were evaluating the possibility of federal court litigation to close Parchman’s notorious Unit 29 but put those plans on hold after the Governor announced in his State of the State address that he has ordered the unit closed.  We are monitoring the situation to ensure that the closure occurs swiftly and safely.  We also are working together to provide the DOJ with updated information and we continue to evaluate our options as events unfold.

Our work in this area is significantly enhanced by the arrival this week of our new Deputy Director of Impact Litigation, Paloma Wu, who has worked on conditions cases at SPLC, at the ACLU, and at Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett, LLP as pro bono counsel.  Paloma is one of Mississippi’s foremost legal experts regarding prison conditions and has been at the forefront of the reform efforts in the wake of the recent violence and chaos at Parchman.

There is a long history of prison reform in Mississippi, beginning with the landmark case of Gates v. Collier, which was filed in 1971 and led to massive improvements at Parchman.  One of the early lawyers for that class of prisoners was David Lipman, now an MCJ board member.  In subsequent years, Rob McDuff, who is now MCJ’s Impact Litigation Director, was co-counsel in cases successfully challenging conditions on Parchman’s Unit 32, MDOC’s treatment of HIV positive prisoners, and conditions at the former Walnut Grove Correctional Facility.  And one of MCJ’s earliest lawsuits, after opening its doors in 2003, was the successful challenge to conditions of confinement at the Oakley Training School for children convicted in youth court.  In 2004-2005, MCJ worked as part of the Mississippi Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Coalition to reform Mississippi’s juvenile justice system, which led to the passage of an important juvenile justice reform bill by the legislature in 2005.

While we have seen some progress in conditions of confinement in Mississippi over the years, a lot of backsliding has occurred as well, and the neglect and disregard of basic human rights by Mississippi’s government has led to the prison crisis that exists today.  Indeed, seven months ago, we and our allies warned public officials of worsening conditions and urged immediate action to reduce overcrowding and increase staffing.  Now that the crisis is front page news, hopefully Mississippi officials will respond with positive changes, the DOJ will do everything it can to prompt long-lasting reforms, and MCJ can join other organizations and individuals in pushing the State to safely reduce the population in its extremely overcrowded prisons and create humane living conditions for those who remain.