Mississippi

Inside the Mississippi prison where inmates set each other on fire and gangs have the power

Why men are joining gangs behind bars at this jail in South Mississippi

John Moran, Chief of Corrections at the George/Greene County Regional Correctional Facility talks in a 2016 interview about gang violence in the jail.
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John Moran, Chief of Corrections at the George/Greene County Regional Correctional Facility talks in a 2016 interview about gang violence in the jail.

Jeffery Wilemon clutched his gut, throbbing in pain as he lay on his bed inside the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in April. But there was no way for him to cry out — not unless he wanted another beating.

Hours earlier, inmates had slugged the 54-year-old and declared he needed to “follow the rules” their gang had set for prison life, he later wrote in a handwritten pleading filed in Itawamba County Circuit Court.

After the beating, they escorted him to a gang leader who warned him he couldn’t run or hide because the gang had members everywhere, Wilemon wrote in his handwritten pleading against the prison.

In an interview with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, Wilemon, who was serving time for possessing a firearm as a felon and possession of a controlled substance in a correctional facility, said he knew the gang was vicious, and that it controlled many aspects of prison life. A few nights earlier, gang members had beaten and burned another inmate and left him for dead.

President Donald Trump hailed Mississippi last year for reforms it put in place in 2014 to reduce the prison population by providing job training and rehabilitation for inmates.

But the reality is starkly different. The number of inmates is growing, as the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica reported in May. Violence and gangs are worse than they’ve ever been, according to interviews, documents and data reviewed by the news organizations. And nowhere is that more apparent than at South Mississippi Correctional Institution.

The prison struggles to meet the fundamental duties of a correctional facility, with surging violence and, now, a lockdown barring visits entering its seventh month. Rather than counting inmates, as required, some guards are reportedly falsifying counts, an internal prison memo says.

The state has sharply cut spending on prisons over the last few years. Along the way, the number of guards at the three state-run prisons has plummeted, from 905 in July 2017 to 627 two years later, even as the number of inmates has remained the same. Vacancies abound, largely because the pay is so low.

South Mississippi Correctional Institution, known as SMCI, now has an inmate-to-correctional officer ratio of 23 to 1, far higher than that of other states or the federal prison system.

“This is not a sustainable situation,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. He called the inmate-to-guard ratio “among the highest I’ve ever seen.”

Just last month, 35-year-old inmate Elijah Anderson, imprisoned for meth possession, had his head slammed against concrete in his bunk and was knocked unconscious, his sister, Keneshia Lee, said. Correctional officers didn’t find him for hours, she said.

“It’s like he’s almost in a vegetative state,” she said. “He can hear us, but he cannot speak to us, and they said he had bleeding in his brain.” Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi, which represents incarcerated individuals, said, “We regularly have clients begging to be kept out of SMCI because of the violence. They’re scared for their lives.”

Mississippi Department of Corrections officials say they can’t discuss the incidents involving Wilemon or Anderson because they are being criminally investigated. So far, no charges have been filed. Official reports confirm that incidents involving the two men took place, though details are redacted.

Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall acknowledged a staffing shortage hinders her agency’s ability to run the state’s prisons. She said she has tried to get the Legislature to approve raises for guards and has worked to do what she can with what she has.

Fathi said the “horrific” attacks on Wilemon and another prisoner just days apart leave “no doubt that SMCI is unsafe.” And if a prison isn’t safe for inmates, it isn’t safe for staff, he said.

‘A ticking time bomb’

The pages of the Greene County Herald, a weekly newspaper here, track the evolution of SMCI from a valued partner to an unstable tempest. When it opened in 1990, the 516-bed, minimum-security SMCI seemed like a godsend for job-starved Leakesville, a town of less than 1,000 residents halfway between Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama.

Back then, Herald editor Russell Turner said, many inmates were teenagers who had gotten into trouble and needed a second chance. When inmates were in the community tackling a project with a work crew, “it was common for folks to provide meals to the crew,” he said.

That mindset began to change around 2010 after corrections officials agreed to shut down a unit plagued by violence at Parchman and began sending some of the state’s worst criminals to SMCI.

In 2009, 26 inmates were charged with crimes inside the prison, two of them for assaulting correctional officers, according to Greene County Circuit Court records.

By 2018, that number had more than doubled to 55 inmates. Nine charges involved assaulting correctional officers; an additional 16 for aggravated assault.

One inmate was charged with murder last year, three with escape. Among the escapes was convicted murderer Michael F. Wilson, who had beaten two people to death.

That incident touched Turner personally. Turner had stopped by his house during the day on July 5, 2018, to find Wilson, 47, covered in sweat, wearing camouflage and sitting on the front steps. Wilson said he needed a ride to the hospital because his wife was in labor.

Turner gave him a ride, albeit with a gun in reach, he said. “I certainly did not know he was an escaped inmate.” The hospital story was a ruse. Soon after dropping Wilson off at the hospital, Turner said he learned that the man had escaped from prison. Turner said he was surprised there had been no news of the escape.

Two hours passed before the public was informed. Prison officials didn’t even know he had escaped, according to an investigative report by the attorney general’s office.

Even after SMCI officials discovered the escape, they failed to “effectively communicate with outside agencies,” including the county sheriff’s office, the attorney general’s report concluded.

Two days later, authorities captured Wilson on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The delay upset Turner. A headline on his July 16, 2018, column in the Herald declared, “We can’t allow officials a ‘free ride’ when it comes to safety and security at SMCI.”

MDOC declined to comment, pointing to a statement by Hall 20 days after the escape that said, “While understaffing has not been directly attributed the July 5 [2018] escape, it could be a contributing factor that ultimately affects public safety.”

In the wake of the escape and subsequent inmate violence, SMCI appointed a new prison superintendent. These days, Turner calls SMCI “a ticking time bomb.”

‘The prison is run by the prisoners’

In the middle of the night on May 30, 2018, a nurse on her rounds found 57-year-old inmate Eddie Shorty bleeding in his cell, according to an incident report obtained by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

Inmates say they heard Shorty, who had been placed in a separate part of the prison under closer scrutiny to ensure his safety, begging an officer for weeks to move him because his cellmate, Jace Hicks, was abusing and extorting him.

On the night of May 29, “we listened as Eddie screamed for help as he was being beaten to death,” said one inmate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation. “We had beat on the cell doors for hours, trying to summon help … all the officer in the tower would do is yell over the P.A. speaker for us to ‘shut the hell up.’”

No help ever came, he said. “Nobody counted or done a single security check that night.”

Under MDOC policy, officers are required to regularly count inmates, as often as once an hour, but a recent memo from the SMCI superintendent discussed the problem of officers failing to count: “Any Staff falsifying count will be reprimanded. This STOPS NOW!”

MDOC spokeswoman Grace Fisher declined to confirm or comment on the memo, which was posted in an inmate dayroom. “I do not discuss internal security matters,” she said.

According to the State Medical Examiner’s Office, Shorty died of blunt force injuries with strangulation.

Hicks, who has pleaded not guilty to a murder charge, told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting in a telephone interview that Shorty began sexually assaulting him. Hicks said authorities disposed of his blood-stained boxers he claimed was evidence of sexual assault.

Hicks acknowledged “nobody came for another four or five hours” after the two men had literally fought to the death. A little over two months later, an inmate broke into the maximum security cell of Tony Howard Jr., doused him with gasoline and set him on fire.

At 5:25 p.m. on Aug. 3, an officer heard prisoners yelling that an inmate was on fire and saw “a big black cloud of smoke,” according to an incident report obtained by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

Albert Wilson, who accused Howard of previously throwing feces on him, has been indicted for inflicting second-degree burns on his fellow inmate. Wilson did not respond to a letter seeking comment.

Howard’s parents said they were unable to visit him until he was transferred to a burn unit at a Jackson hospital. After recovering, he was sent to Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. Howard did not respond to a letter seeking comment.

Howard’s mother, Linda, said the lack of oversight by officers led to her son’s attack. “If I go to see my son,” she said, “I’m patted down under my arms and between my legs.” She raised a question unaddressed by the court documents: How could an inmate obtain gasoline and a lighter behind bars?”

‘I didn’t feel like pressing my luck’

Wallace Carpenter, of Richton, served as a correctional officer at SMCI for a dozen years. In 2007, an attack by several inmates in the dining room gave him a black eye and sent him to the hospital for observation. “The response time (by fellow officers) was excellent,” he said.

Carpenter returned to work. But in 2015, with the staff shrinking and the prison growing more violent, he said he and other veteran officers quit. “I didn’t feel like pressing my luck,” he said.

Mississippi pays the lowest salary for jail and correctional officers in the nation, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The starting salary for a correctional officer at SMCI is $12.33 an hour.

In contrast, a kitchen manager at a nearby Hardee’s starts at $36,000 per year, more than $10,000 higher than the $25,650 a new guard would earn. The average salary for a correctional officer in the U.S. is $49,300 a year.

Hall asked lawmakers to increase the starting pay for officers to at least $28,000, a little less than the starting pay in Alabama. The Mississippi Legislature instead approved a 3% raise. The current starting pay is still low enough for a prison guard raising a family of three to qualify for food stamps.

Officers who remain oversee more and more inmates.

As of July 1, Parchman, the state’s most notorious prison, had one officer for every 11 inmates; Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, one officer for every 17 inmates; and SMCI, one for every 23 inmates.

The average officer in a federal prison is responsible for watching 9.3 inmates, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. Among some neighboring states, the ratio is 6.6 inmates per officer in Arkansas; 5.2 to 1 in Louisiana; and 9.9 to 1 in Alabama.

MDOC declined to comment on the high inmate-to-guard ratios at the state’s prisons, but noted that in a fiscal 2018 report, the ratio was lower; one guard per 11 inmates,.

Lack of staff forces officers to stay on for overtime shifts, a problem highlighted nationally when accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein killed himself in a federal jail in New York City this month. Two of the officers on duty that night were working overtime shifts, media organizations have reported.

At SMCI, when an officer’s first shift ends after 12 hours, prison officials often ask him or her to work a second 12-hour shift. At the end of the second shift, some are asked to work a third.

“Oh, my, that’s dangerous,” said former Washington state prisons director Eldon Vail. Without proper rest, he said, officers can fall asleep when they are watching inmates, he said.

‘They’re scared for their lives’

Kevin Schaal, a 63-year-old inmate serving time for sale of a controlled substance, drug possession and possession of a weapon, has spent much of his life behind bars.

He said gangs — he calls them “mobs” — run SMCI. When a prisoner arrives, the new inmate won’t sleep in the bed that officials assign to him. The gangs tell him where to sleep.

And when he arrives at that bed, he will probably see a wire frame with no mattress because they have already seized it for themselves, Schaal said. “I slept on steel for about two weeks.”

When a new inmate arrives at SMCI, gangs also take his picture with their cellphones, which aren’t allowed in prison but are widely used, Schaal said. Even if an inmate is transferred to a different part of the prison, his photo arrives ahead of him.

On April 8, state Rep. Jay Hughes toured SMCI. Turner, who is a member of the citizen advisory committee to the prison, joined him.

Hughes, a Democrat from Oxford traveling the state in his campaign for lieutenant governor, said one counselor told him she didn’t feel safe. He and Turner said a high-ranking prison official corrected her, saying: “It’s not that you didn’t feel safe. You aren’t safe.”

Fisher, the MDOC spokeswoman, replied that the department “denies alleged statements that gangs run SMCI or any other prison. Such an assertion contradicts the public safety mission of the agency.”

‘It just tore me up’

The tour came just days before a correctional officer found Henry Armstead on his back between the benches in a dayroom, according to an incident report obtained by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

He had been “severely beaten and had severe burns on his back,” the report said.

His mother, Demetrius Armstead, said she didn’t learn that her son had been hurt until six days later, when the prison chaplain told her to head to a Hattiesburg hospital. She found her son on life support.

His swollen head reflected a severe beating, she said.

“And I could see the burns from his ear, down his entire back to the top of his buttocks.” At first, she became angry. Then she broke down.

“Everything in the whole of my body just went to the gut of my stomach,” she said. “It just tore me up on the inside.”

He has since been transferred to the hospital at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, his mother said. “He’s still on his feeding tube.”

Fisher said MDOC cannot comment on the cases of Wilemon, Armstead, Howard or Shorty, saying they remain open. Demetrius Armstead called for a federal investigation into the violence against her son and others.

Lockdowns as a way of life

With declining staff and increasing violence, lockdowns have become a permanent way of life at SMCI.

Although courts have held that all inmates are entitled to an hour of exercise each weekday, that rarely happens at SMCI, inmates say.

Area II, which houses about half the inmates at SMCI, hasn’t allowed visits since January, and the rest of the prison recently followed suit. MDOC called the situation at SMCI a “partial lockdown.”

Courts have generally allowed corrections officials to lock down prisons and cancel yard calls in response to threats or violence, but those same courts have drawn a line for other reasons, Fathi said.

In a lockdown case decided by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1974, judges noted such emergencies “cease to be emergencies when they continue indefinitely.”

Hall said when there aren’t enough correctional officers, she must use lockdowns.

“We do that for the safety of the staff,” she said in April. “We do that for the safety of the residents incarcerated. And we do it for the public.”

But she acknowledged that extended lockdowns create “an unsafe environment for my staff.” When the doors are finally unlocked after a long lockdown, she said, “rage is coming out that door.”

‘Gangland’

Wilemon said the gang held him hostage for more than 12 hours. He eventually alerted an officer, who let him outside to walk to the prison’s medical clinic. He never made it, passing out on the grass.

He was airlifted to Forrest General Hospital, more than 50 miles away, where doctors removed his ruptured spleen and gallbladder, he said. “They also repaired my small intestines.”

An incident report confirms he was airlifted to Forrest General, but the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting has been unable to confirm the extent of Wilemon’s injuries.

After his time in the hospital, SMCI returned Wilemon to the place he called “Gangland.”

Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to hold public officials accountable and empower citizens in their communities. Email him at Jerry.Mitchell.MCIR@gmail.com and follow him on Facebook at @JerryMitchellReporter and on Twitter at @jmitchellnews. The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica are spending the year examining the state’s corrections system. We want to know what’s really happening behind the walls of Mississippi’s prisons.

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