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Mississippi Prison System Faces Investigation, Lawsuits After Rash Of Inmate Deaths


More than 30 inmates have died in state custody in Mississippi since the end of last year. The state is facing lawsuits and a federal investigation into rampant violence, decrepit conditions and a culture of neglect and corruption that's plagued Mississippi prisons for decades. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: At the end of a work day, Cheryl Porter (ph) pulls into the gravel drive of her one-bedroom travel trailer in Brandon, Miss.


CHERYL PORTER: I actually want to get rid of this one and get a bigger one because, you know, when Michael (ph) gets home, lord willing.

ELLIOTT: Michael, her 29-year-old son, has been incarcerated since he was a teenager on several felony charges, including burglary. He's due for release in 2022.

PORTER: If he gets to come home alive.

ELLIOTT: Her son was in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman when deadly riots broke out at the end of last year. She has cellphone images of the aftermath.

PORTER: It was a blood bath. I mean, it was horrible. That's the back of my son. This is where they hit him with the pipe. They stabbed him 12 times.

ELLIOTT: Michael has received death threats, she says, and lives in constant fear.

PORTER: There's no officers in sight. Inmates is killing each other. Why?

ELLIOTT: Because the state is in an incarceration crisis, says Alesha Judkins, Mississippi state director for, a criminal justice advocacy group. She blames chronic underfunding and sentencing laws that have left the system overcrowded, understaffed and in a state of disrepair.

ALESHA JUDKINS: Because of the sheer number of people in the state's care and custody, they cannot safely house or manage the population that they have.

ELLIOTT: Since December 29, more than 30 inmates have died in custody. Some are attributed to gang violence. Others are reported as suicide or illnesses. The uptick in deaths has drawn national attention, along with the ability of inmates to use contraband cellphones to share dramatic video from inside the lockups, like this smoke-filled scene.


UNIDENTIFIED INMATE: We need some help, man. Man, we got a whole fire in the zone, man. The police won't even come here and get us out of here, bro.

ELLIOTT: The U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation, and inmates are suing in a class action, the latest in a string of lawsuits dating to the 1970s that have sought to address inhumane conditions in Mississippi prisons, some of which resulted in federal control of the system over the years. The Mississippi Department of Corrections declined to comment, and Republican Governor Tate Reeves was unavailable for an interview with NPR. But as the crisis worsened shortly after he took office in January, Reeves acknowledged problems.


TATE REEVES: We're working to improve the conditions there. In a lot of places, they're not good. There's no other word for it. They're terrible.

ELLIOTT: The state took immediate steps to move some inmates out of what was considered the worst housing unit at Parchman and moved nonviolent offenders to other prisons. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, transfers were halted. Advocates are calling for high-risk inmates to be released. They say inadequate medical care and unsanitary conditions make prisoners vulnerable, especially at Parchman, where health inspections detail the lack of clean water and power in numerous cells.

The notorious state penitentiary at Parchman has long been a focal point for prison reform. It's a sprawling 18,000 acre working farm in the Mississippi Delta, a former plantation converted to a prison to lease convicts after the Civil War.


UNIDENTIFIED PRISONERS: (Singing) I'm on old Parchman. Got to work or leave.

ELLIOTT: Folklorist Alan Lomax made these field recordings of prisoners working in the fields in the 1940s.


UNIDENTIFIED PRISONERS: (Singing) Oh, Lord. Berta, Berta. Oh, Lord.

ELLIOTT: Democratic State Representative Robert Johnson of Natchez is the minority leader in the Mississippi House.

ROBERT JOHNSON: Mississippi prisons have always had a history of existing on the backs of human capital.

ELLIOTT: He remembers when Parchman operated as its own entity, with industries and a working farm.

JOHNSON: Somebody was making a ton of money on people working for nothing. For African Americans in this state, it feels like a continuation of slavery, really. You lock people up, put them up there, and you put them to work for nothing. That's what it feels like.

ELLIOTT: There are no chain gangs at Parchman today. Critics say the bondage is now in the form of gang leaders and the corrupt guards who help them.

On January 26, the Mississippi Department of Corrections sent out a news release that 26-year-old Joshua Norman had been found dead on a Sunday morning, hanging in his one-man cell at Parchman.

JANICE SHERMAN: Supposedly, he committed suicide. You know, I don't believe that happened to him.

ELLIOTT: Janice Sherman is Joshua's aunt. She says he'd been running from violence and brutality since he first entered the Mississippi Department of Corrections at age 16.

SHERMAN: He had no idea, you know, the trauma that awaited him. It's just a very sad story.

ELLIOTT: He wrote to her that a gang was pressuring him to stab another inmate, but he was resisting and had been beaten.

SHERMAN: And then we'd gotten some text messages, even a few months ago, saying that, you know, he got beaten pretty bad and they were after him. So if he did commit suicide, he may have been under duress to do it. So, you know, there were just unanswered questions.

ELLIOTT: She's looking for accountability.

SHERMAN: You know, we can't do anything to bring him back. But there are lots of people's, you know, sons and grandsons that are still in there. I'd love to see it be a little bit more safe. You know, it's like the - you can't live every day knowing that you might die the same day.

ELLIOTT: Sherman says a prison sentence should not be a death sentence.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Jackson, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Debbie Elliott
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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