An April report issued by the United States Department of Justice found that conditions in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman violated the US Constitution. The report was the culmination of a two-year investigation by the Department of Justice and examined whether Mississippi prisons violated constitutional protections.
This investigation was launched under the Trump Administration Justice Department on the heels of a weeks-long prison riot at Parchman that generated national media attention .
Here’s a breakdown of what the report means, what the investigation found, how it impacts Mississippians, and what comes next.
How is this unconstitutional?
Congress granted statutory authority to the Department of Justice to investigate state prison conditions for Constitutional violations. These violations center around two provisions: the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law. Previous court decisions establish the precedent for what constitutes a constitutional violation.
Courts have been clear that the Constitution does not require that prisons be comfortable, nor that they be free of violence. When determining whether conditions in a prison constitute cruel and unusual punishment, courts use a two-pronged test.
Conditions must result in “extreme deprivation of the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities,” and prison officials must also act with “deliberate indifference” to these conditions.
The investigation into Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman examined mountains of evidence and concluded that conditions there meet these conditions, resulting in a violation of the basic Constitutional rights of individuals housed there.
What did the investigation find?
The report issued by the Department of Justice is over 60 pages long and contains dozens of examples of conditions inside Parchman. Many of these stories resemble something from a horror novel.
Through documentation provided by the Mississippi Department of Corrections, the Department of Justice paints the following picture of life inside Parchman:
- Extreme Violence: Attacks are common, brutal, and often go unresolved. People incarcerated as well as correctional officers are regularly faced with life-threatening violence. Attacks often go unseen, perpetrators are rarely identified, and there are no consequences.
- Lack of Supervision: Entire units often go unpatrolled four hours at a time. People incarcerated resort to calling 911 dispatch to alert guards to violence or receive medical attention. Fires have been set to receive attention from correctional officers.
- Uncontrolled Gang Activity: Lack of supervision presents a leadership vacuum which is filled by gangs. Criminal gangs exert control over the population on a regular basis.
- Excessive Contraband: The prison is flooded with contraband regularly. Cell phones, drugs, and weapons are readily available. Cell phones and weapons facilitate collaboration for violence within the prison. The presence of drugs undermines potential rehabilitative programming.
- Deplorable Conditions: People incarcerated are routinely denied the ability to shower. Raw sewage can encroach into living quarters. Lack of air conditioning causes metal buildings to reach temperatures in excess of 120 degrees, exacerbating medical issues.
- Lack of Treatment: Mental health services are substandard, resulting in a lack of treatment for people with mental health issues. This contributes to outbreaks of violence and suicides. Suicidal threats are ignored and facilities are not up to par, allowing people on suicide watch to complete suicide.
- Endemic Understaffing: A staffing analysis revealed that Parchman is understaffed by up to 50 percent. This is a root issue contributing to many of the problematic conditions within the facility. Understaffing results in situations where one guard is assigned to supervise 180 people for 12 hours at a time, with no ability to walk the housing unit and supervise the people incarcerated there.
Why should we care?
All individuals are entitled to basic constitutional protections, even when incarcerated.
Setting aside the constitutional concerns, conditions in Parchman present a clear danger to public safety. Lack of supervision causes diversion of law enforcement resources to maintain order in the prison. The 2019 riots required the Department of Corrections to seek assistance from the local Sheriff’s Department and the Mississippi Highway Patrol to restore order. This diverts law enforcement resources from the communities they serve.
Ninety-five percent of people incarcerated in Mississippi prisons will be released at some point. Subjecting them to a miserable existence surrounded by constant violence makes it near-impossible for them to seek any sort of rehabilitation, and increases the likelihood that they will commit another crime when they are released.
This situation results in a huge drain on taxpayer resources. The state pays overtime to fill in the gaps caused by understaffing, the state is forced to pay increased medical costs as a result of routine violence and poor conditions, and increased recidivism drive up future costs as well.
In their report, the Department of Justice is unequivocal in its findings: conditions at Parchman are unconstitutional. The report explains that the Department maintains the ability to file suit against the State of Mississippi to correct these conditions. This could happen as soon as June 8, within 49 days of the report’s publication on April 20. A lawsuit could result in federal oversight or control of Mississippi’s prisons. This would place the state in a difficult position, as the federal government could force Mississippi to spend billions of dollars to correct the issues, with little ability to control the outcome. This played out recently in Alabama , where the federal government forced the state to spend billions on prison improvements.
Mississippi can work to proactively address these issues. While the state legislature has adopted a number of justice reforms in recent years, these have not materially changed the situation in prisons like Parchman. Almost all of the issues identified in this investigation are due at least in part to lack of staff and lack of training. With the third highest incarceration rate in the country, Mississippi simply cannot afford to hire and train the number of correctional officers needed to safely operate its prisons.
Improvements will almost certainly require spending more state tax dollars to hire more staff and better equip them. But it’s doubtful that this alone will be enough, as Mississippi simply cannot afford to spend the amount of money required to maintain its oversized prison population.
Reforms will need to target safely reducing the state’s prison population, which can be accomplished with these policy changes:
- Reduce long sentences for non-serious offenses: People are currently serving life sentences in Mississippi for drug offenses. The state’s sentencing laws can result in decades-long sentences for non-violent offenses. Limiting these long sentences would allow the Department of Corrections to focus its resources on those incarcerated for serious crimes. For more on sentencing reform in Mississippi, click here .
- Expand alternatives to incarceration: Alternative sanctions like drug courts and diversion are proven to provide better outcomes than prison. Mississippi could expand these options to reduce the strain on the state’s prison system, especially for people with mental health issues or problems with substance abuse. Click here for more on drug courts and diversion programs in Mississippi.