Roughly 1,800 of the 3,000 inmates at the South Mississippi prison in Leakesville are locked in their cells 23 hours a day and haven’t been allowed visitors in at least three months, according to reporting from the Clarion Ledger.
It’s not because of anything the inmates have done, but because of a lack of correctional officers in the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
Some family members say inmates are subjected to inhumane conditions including black mold on walls, leaking pipes and abusive treatment by security officers.
In late January, MDOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall said in a statement that visitation and other privileges would be canceled indefinitely at a unit of the South Mississippi Correctional Institution.
In October, MDOC placed a lockdown at SMCI, Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, East Mississippi Correctional Facility and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.
Normal operations resumed in November at the prisons, but most of SMCI went back on lockdown in January and it is still in effect. It’s one of the longest lockdowns in recent memory and there is no indication of when it will end.
No visitation, work detail, training
LaKeshia Payton, whose fiance is in the prison, said she hasn’t been able to see him since late last year.
Payton said her fiance told her that he and other inmates on lockdown don’t get to outside their cells except for medication or to go to the doctor.
One woman, who didn’t want to be identified because of fear of retribution for her incarcerated son, said inmates are treated like animals. She said there are two inmates per cell locked down 23 hours a day.
In a lockdown, inmates aren’t allowed outside their cells for things such as work details, education classes, vo-tech training, church or going to the library.
The mother said her son told her there have been incidents such as one inmate severely beating another and guards not helping the injured inmate for hours.
“If you treat them like animals, they are going to act like animals,” the woman said.
Hall said that while some privileges suffer, restricting movement is necessary given the agency’s staffing.
But Hall said: “Under my administration, the Mississippi Department of Corrections does not condone or tolerate the mistreatment of staff or incarcerated persons. If information is brought to my administration’s attention and an investigation finds there has been a violation of the department’s policies and procedures or that a civil rights violation or crime has occurred, then the MDOC will act appropriately.
“We are doing our very best to hire more correctional officers. The agency is aggressively recruiting. But it all comes down to funding,” Hall said.
MDOC seeking to hire at least 500 correctional officers
The starting pay for a correctional officer without a degree or experience is $24,903 a year. Someone with a college degree or corrections experience starts at $26,148.
Last month, MDOC began accepting applications for correctional officers.
MDOC spokeswoman Grace Fisher said the department is seeking to hire at least 500 additional correctional officers with existing funds.
In MDOC’s state budget appropriation, SMCI is listed for 404 full-time positions. Hall said SMCI has a staff vacancy rate of 48 percent, the highest among state prisons.
Hall asked lawmakers to appropriate in MDOC’s budget more than $7 million to increase the starting salary of correctional officers for the upcoming budget year from the $24,903 to a range of $28,000 to $31,000.
Lawmakers included in MDOC’s budget about $1.5 million for realignment of some MDOC positions. Also, corrections officers will be eligible for the up to 3 percent pay raise approved for state employees.
Conditions at prison led to hunger strike in 2017
It’s not the first time that inhumane treatment has been alleged at the South Mississippi prison.
In 2017, some inmates staged a hunger strike, citing inhumane conditions. Last year, a convicted murderer escaped from the prison and an inmate’s mother said her son was set on fire by a fellow inmate.
Payton said she believes conditions at South Mississippi are like those complained about by inmates at East Mississippi.
Last year, a five-week trial took place in federal court in Jackson over conditions at the privately run East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Meridian, where many of the inmates suffer mental illness. Inmates complained about harsh, unconstitutional conditions at the prison.
More than 400 exhibits were introduced into evidence. Testimony was heard from 32 fact witnesses and nine expert witnesses. Senior U.S. District Judge William Barbour Jr. has yet to rule. He appointed experts to examine conditions at the prison and report to him.
SMCI is located on 360 acres in Greene County. The prison houses male offenders who are classified minimum, medium and close custody levels as well as protective custody and long-term segregation.