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Pressure Mounts To Improve Mississippi Prison Conditions


Pressure is mounting on Mississippi prison officials to stem a rash of deadly violence in state prisons. At least 10 inmates have died in less than a month. Governor Tate Reeves acknowledges that conditions are terrible. Advocates for prisoners say the current crisis has been long in the making. NPR's Debbie Elliott has this report.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Eight of the 10 prisoner deaths happened at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, a former plantation converted to a sprawling penal farm in the Mississippi Delta.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Shut it down. Shut it down. Shut it down. Shut it down.

ELLIOTT: Hundreds of people rallied at the state capitol in Jackson Friday to demand it be closed. Civil rights lawyer Jaribu Hill.

JARIBU HILL: Parchman is a prison farm plantation. Shut it down. Shut it down.

ELLIOTT: Three inmates died in the past week. The Mississippi Department of Corrections says two were beaten to death in an altercation with other prisoners and one was found hanged in his cell. The penitentiary has been on lockdown since riots broke out on December 29. For months, inmates have been posting images to social media from contraband cell phones showing violent and decrepit conditions.

SHARON BROWN: They are fighting against a system of slavery.

ELLIOTT: Sharon Brown is with the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition.

BROWN: We are here because we are sick and tired of state-sanctioned murder.

ELLIOTT: Dino Pickett (ph) came to the rally carrying a framed photograph of his father.

DINO PICKETT: Robert Dino Pickett died in MDOC custody last year. I just wanted to come and represent and make sure something is done.

ELLIOTT: Pickett is also a corrections officer.

PICKETT: Hell - purely hell. On an average day, I mean, custody control of 300 inmates, and I may have six officers to help me. So if anything breaks out, what can we do besides let it happen?

ELLIOTT: The rally comes as more than two dozen inmates have filed a federal lawsuit over what they say are unconstitutional conditions. It's the latest in a string of lawsuits dating to the 1970s that have sought to reform Mississippi prisons. Advocates have also called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate. Republican Governor Tate Reeves, who was just sworn in on January 14, toured Parchman on Thursday with his interim prison commissioner and called conditions terrible.


TATE REEVES: We know that there are problems in the system. We don't want to hide them. We want to fix them.

ELLIOTT: In one unit where riots broke out, he says prisoners tore the place apart.


REEVES: We are dealing with inmates that have committed in many instances very, very heinous acts. And so this is a prison, but it is our responsibility to ensure that we are housing them in an environment that ensures that their safety is protected.

ELLIOTT: Reeves outlined some initial steps, including deploying maintenance crews, putting a state criminal investigator at Parchman and requiring a warden to be onsite at all times. The state has moved more than 300 inmates to a private prison and is looking to relocate an additional 600.

But Reeves says he's not looking for more money right now, and that's been a subject of dispute. The former corrections commissioner had warned lawmakers that prisons were understaffed and didn't have enough money to hire enough guards. Reeves was lieutenant governor for the past eight years, a chief budget writer in the legislature. At yesterday's rally, the Democratic leader in the Mississippi House, Representative Robert Johnson, put the blame for the prison crisis squarely on state leadership.

ROBERT JOHNSON III: Mississippi hadn't done their job. The governor hadn't done his job. The MDOC hadn't done their job. The legislature hadn't done their job. We underfunded MDOC by $35 million.

ELLIOTT: He promised a war in the legislature, and rally organizers say they plan to take their protest into the halls of the Mississippi capitol when lawmakers return on Monday.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Jackson, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAGGIE ROGERS' "BETTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.