The Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, known throughout the state as Parchman Farm, has been the site of dramatic upheavals in 2019 and 2020. The maximum-security prison has experienced a string of inmate deaths. Prison officials and prison reform activists agree that the facility is understaffed and in deplorable condition, leading to hazards that have resulted in several deaths. The most recent death has led new Mississippi State Governor Tate Reeves to announce that one of the most blighted wings of the facility, called Unit 29, will be closed.

A Spate of Inmate Deaths

Beginning in December 2019, deaths began to plague the prison facilities of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. More than 10 inmates have died as a result of rioting and other violent acts as well as suicides; 9 of these deaths occurred at the notorious Parchman prison. Parchman, located in unincorporated Sunflower County in the state’s Mississippi River Delta region, was first used to house prisoners in 1901; today, it has beds for nearly 5000 inmates. The all-male facility holds prisoners at all custody levels, and is also the home of the state’s male Death Row. Inmates sentenced to death are held in Unit 29.

According to prison officials, prison gangs kicked off a wave of violence in December 2019. One incident in the last week of December led to the beating or stabbing deaths of three inmates. Another two inmates escaped the custody of the facility in the same week. In the second week of January 2020, two inmates were beaten to death in their cells. The victims were James Talley and Timothy Hudspeth. A day after the beating deaths, another inmate named Joshua Norman was found hanging in his cell. Sunflower County coroner Heather Burton ruled the hanging death a suicide. Just before leaving office, former Governor Phil Bryant stated that the state government would attempt to get a handle on the problems plaguing the Mississippi prison system.

Unit 29: “Hell on Earth”

Unit 29 of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman has long been a problem for the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC). A complex of 16 buildings, the unit was built in the 1970s and received renovations in 1998 and again in 2000. It houses minimum, medium, and close-custody inmates, including all-male MDOC inmates on Death Row. Originally designed for 1456 inmates, it was expanded to accommodate more prisoners during renovation efforts. By the time of its slated closure in 2020, it had exceeded its rated capacity of 1561 beds.

Unit 29 was the site of a violent riot in the year 2000, which led to injuries of many inmates housed there. Deterioration in subsequent years, coupled with overcrowding and insufficient staffing, has created deplorable conditions. According to investigative journalists and prison-industry watchdogs, Unit 29 is overrun with rats. Open sewer drains and frequent sewage backups make conditions there extremely hazardous from a health perspective. At least one lawsuit filed by inmates of Unit 29 alleges that corruption and abuse at the hands of corrections officials have made conditions in the unit “barbaric”.

Understaffed and Underfunded: Mississippi’s Prison System

Staffing issues have affected prisons throughout the United States. In Mississippi, inadequate staffing at Parchman and other prison facilities has been noted as at least partially responsible for the violence and hazardous conditions inmates experience.

One of the core tenets of prison reform is that America’s prisons have adequate control via appropriate staffing levels. In Mississippi, staffing is a volatile issue and one that is woefully underprepared to provide the necessary control of dangerous prisoners. Almost half of the corrections staff positions in the state’s three main prison facilities remain unfilled. Low salaries compound the problem; corrections staff can expect starting salaries of around $26,000. Men in the state have shunned jobs in the prison system, leaving women to fill many of the open positions. It is estimated that about 65% of all corrections staff in Mississippi are women.

Funding for construction, maintenance, and support of Mississippi’s prisons is also inadequate. Since 2014, the state government has slashed funding for a variety of programs and services in the state’s prisons, including hiring staff and improving salary rates. Both the low levels of funding and inadequate staffing levels have created a shift in the way prisons are run – today, prison gangs have assumed much of the control of facilities, including Parchman. These gangs, including the Black Gangster Disciples and the Vice Lords, know that with not enough guards watching inmate activities, they can get away with numerous criminal acts, including murders of fellow inmates.

To combat inadequate staffing at Parchman, state police officers were pressed into service as facility guards. These officers must work 12-hour shifts, especially as many regular corrections officials stopped coming to work as conditions deteriorated and violence escalated.

Help on the Horizon?

With Parchman appearing frequently in the news, prison officials and Governor Tate Reeves are scrambling to come up with solutions. The closure of Unit 29 was ordered, but it may take several months to complete the closure as inmates housed there must be transferred to other units or different facilities altogether. So far, 375 inmates were transferred to the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, a privately-run prison near the town of Tutwiler in the Delta region. 625 inmates remain in Unit 29 as closure procedures continue.

Closing Unit 29 is certainly a step in the right direction, but many believe it is too little, too late. In January 2020, 29 inmates at Parchman filed a federal lawsuit alleging that conditions inside the prison violate inmate’s constitutional rights. Rap celebrities Yo Gotti and Jay-Z have agreed to pay for lawyers representing the inmates in the lawsuit. Yo Gotti also held a prison reform rally in Mississippi, calling for the United States Department of Justice to step in to ensure inmates’ wellbeing.

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