Inspection uncovers hundreds of problemsBy MICHELLE LIU - MISSISSIPPI TODAY,
A state inspection of Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman this summer found hundreds of cells with environmental health problems.
The inspection, which the state Department of Health performs annually, documents more than 400 cells with problems such as flooding and leaks, lack of lights, power and water, broken toilets and sinks as well as missing pillows and mattresses.
This year’s annual inspection was conducted from June 3 to June 7, according to documents prepared by inspector Rayford Horton, which Mississippi Today obtained. A spokesperson for the state health department said an official report will be released and declined further comment.
Hundreds of other environmental sanitation deficiencies are also identified across the prison, including instances of black mold and mildew, exposed wiring, raw sewage as well as showers and ice machines that were inoperable.
Unit 29, which has more than 1,500 beds, has the most violations, although the inspector found deficiencies across all of Parchman’s open units. Many of these issues are repeated across state health inspection reports since 2016, a Mississippi Today review found.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) has issued work orders for these issues, with most of the completion dates due in July, said agency spokesperson Grace Fisher.
“The implications of long-term exposure to unhealthy and dangerous conditions are not a mystery,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center in Mississippi, which has litigated prison conditions in the state before. “People are sick. People are dying in our prisons. People are in need of services that they don’t receive, and we hear weekly that there aren’t enough people at MDOC to remedy this situation.”
The health department inspects environmental conditions at Parchman based on standards set by the American Correctional Association, said Jim Craig, senior deputy and director of the Office of Health Protection for the state health agency. The health department, which does not have enforcement power over MDOC, sends these reports to the governor’s office each year.
Gov. Phil Bryant’s office did not respond to requests to comment for this story.
MDOC issued a corrective response to each deficiency in the reports, indicating how and when that deficiency will be fixed. Yet in some cases, deficiencies cited in specific cells are cited again in the same cells the following year.
Craig said in some instances, that was because prisoners damaged or destroyed the repaired fixtures.
Though state officials have acknowledged that Parchman needs structural repairs, lawmakers have yet to fund such a renovation.
For fiscal year 2020, corrections commissioner Pelicia Hall asked state lawmakers for $22.3 million to repair Unit 29 at Parchman. Bryant, in his most recent budget recommendation, called for $6 million for the first phase of that building project.
This spring, lawmakers ultimately approved a total budget of $36 million for Parchman, 2.6 percent less than the prison received the previous year — and $22.8 million short of the total sum Hall requested.
The department still needs $22.3 million to renovate Unit 29 alone, Fisher said. She did not have a figure for the prison’s total renovation.
State law mandates “annual structural and environmental inspections” of housing and service facilities at Parchman, but not of other correctional facilities. Other Mississippi prisons can be inspected by the health department for accreditation by a leading national prison trade group.
Until 2011, courts ordered the state to regularly inspect state institutions and repair deficiencies following judgment in the federal class-action lawsuit Gates v. Collier, said attorney Ron Welch, who represented state prisoners against Mississippi in the 1970s era case.
Welch said regular inspections helped the state save money and prolong the life of the buildings, but that maintaining Parchman, the state’s oldest prison, was an uphill battle. He cited legislative budget cuts over the last few years as part of the problem: “If they don’t maintain these buildings, it will cut the life of the buildings in half. That means taxpayers are paying twice as much for these buildings as they would if they maintained these buildings.”
Photographs taken over the course of Parchman inspections in the last three years mirror images and videos of conditions that surfaced on social media in recent months, depicting men sleeping on floors, mold in showers, scanty food trays and dirty water.
At a rally against mass incarceration outside the Rankin County courthouse recently, family members of currently incarcerated Mississippians decried those conditions. Malaika Canada, one of those family members, read aloud a statement from prisoners in Unit 29:
“Imagine waking up to rats eating up your snacks; possums, raccoons and skunks on your bunks,” Canada read. “Snakes falling from the roof and spiders hanging over your head…having to warm up water in the microwave because the shower water’s freezing cold. Being dehydrated for days, afraid to drink water that’s brown and smells like sewage within pipes filled with rust and mold.”
According to Fisher, MDOC provides inmates with bottled water, and the agency has a contract for pest control.
The state is currently battling a federal lawsuit over conditions at the privately operated East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Meridian; a judge’s ruling is still pending.