Lawsuit: Prison awash in contraband, weapons, filth

JACKSON, Miss. — A private Mississippi prison that houses many inmates suffering from mental illness is a barbaric place where gangs and others beat, mistreat and exploit convicts, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court here.

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The American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Poverty Law Center asked a federal court Friday to allow its suit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections to become a class action. The state is ultimately responsible for conditions at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Meridian, Miss., the organizations said.

“The prison is in chaos, with conditions so dangerous — violence, filth, callous denial of prisoners’ serious medical and mental health needs — that the only meaningful remedy is an injunction to protect all prisoners,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. The initial suit was filed in May 2013.

Officials at Management & Training Corp. of Centerville, Utah, said they’ve made significant improvements since they took over the prison in July 2012. The privately held company, founded in 1981, operates more than two dozen federal and state correctional facilities in Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio and Texas, according to its website.

“MTC is very concerned about the well being of the inmates in our care as well as our staff and the community,” said Issa Arnita, director of corporate communications. “We have worked hard to identify areas of improvement and we will continue to do so moving forward.”

 

If a federal judge grants the motion, the lawsuit would follow in the steps of class-action litigation brought against Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, which Management & Training Corp. also operates in Walnut Grove, and Mississippi State Penitentiary’s death row and now-closed Unit 32, a super maximum-security solitary-confinement unit at the prison in Parchman, Miss.

“No single prisoner acting alone can address all the problems for everyone,” Winter said. The case needs to go forward as class-action litigation.

This past March and April, Eldon Vail, former Washington state corrections secretary and an expert for the plaintiffs, inspected the privately run prison over a period of several days.

“East Mississippi Correctional Facility is an extraordinarily dangerous prison,” he concluded in his report. “All prisoners confined there are subjected on a daily basis to significant risk of serious injury.”

Conditions in an area where some prisoners are kept in segregation were “barbaric,” especially to those suffering from mental illness, he wrote. More than 70% of the 1,200 inmates have a mental illness.

“They are the worst I have ever seen in 35 years as a corrections professional,” he wrote, finding defects in basic security, cell doors that wouldn’t lock, a lack of staff training and worse.

“This is a prison awash in contraband and easily accessible weapons, where severely chaotic conditions of confinement and no rational, functional way for prisoners to get legitimate issues addressed put all prisoners as well as staff at ongoing risk of serious harm,” Vail wrote.

When asked about Vail’s allegations, Management & Training Corp. officials said they’ve been operating the facility for only two years and have improved conditions. The company also operates two other prisons in Mississippi, Marshall County Correctional Facility in Holly Springs and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility in Woodville.

Five of the state’s eight prisons are privately run, and some state inmates are housed in regional correctional facilities.

 

State corrections officials said Thursday that they don’t respond to matters involving litigation.

Jody Owens, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi office, said he’s been horrified by what he’s seen.

 

Two of his lawyers toured the facility, finding such things as blood standing on the floor of cells. A number of mentally ill inmates there cut themselves.

“No one should be forced to endure the dangerous — and even deadly — conditions found at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility,” he said.

During his visit, Vail said he found lights that didn’t work, exposed wiring in cells, nonfunctioning water faucets and toilets that would not flush.

“One man told me he had not had water in his sink for three weeks,” he said. “Another said he had been without water for four or five days. Another told me his toilet had not functioned for two weeks.”

A previous complaint against the prison alleged some prisoners captured rats and sold them to others.

Corruption among staff members is widespread, according to the litigation. Staff is involved with gangs, extortion and contraband, smuggling in drugs and weapons in return for payment from prisoners.

The litigation talks of widespread sex among officers and inmates, a “buddy” system in which officers covered up other officers’ beatings of inmates, investigators’ corruption and the rehiring of former employees dismissed for excessive use of force.

In November 2012, Management & Training Corp.’s president toured the institution and was quoted as saying, “The living conditions were awful.”

In his report, Vail wrote, “The corporate president was correct. Conditions in segregation are still awful today. It is tragic that nearly a year and a half later, those units and the showers are still in that condition.”