Gangs, Privatization Create “Chaotic” Conditions in Mississippi Prisons
By David Reutter
Mention prison and most people imagine dark thoughts. The reasons for those thoughts vary from a fear of losing personal freedom to the images from Hollywood that portray prison as a gladiator school where violence reigns and only the mean or wily survive.
In recent decades, American courts developed a theory of “evolving standards of decency” that demands humane and safe environs prevail in our prisons. Politicians have touted the need to punish, but of late they have been advocating “smart justice” that once again puts rehabilitation into the mix.
Rhetoric is one thing; reality is another. An expert who recently toured a privatized MDOC prison found “chaotic conditions of confinement” that present an “ongoing risk of serious harm” for prisoners and staff. Prison experts, civil rights advocates, and the media have repeatedly criticized conditions that have resulted in the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) having a higher mortality rate than Detroit.
MDOC Commissioner Christopher B. Epps urged citizens to take a “hard look” into depictions of violence, gang activity, and corruption in the state’s prisons. He touted MDOC’s positives, which he proclaimed is “a nationally recognized leader in corrections reform.”
Among the positives, over 4,000 prisoners “completed GED, vocational trade, and drug and alcohol treatment within the last year.” The 32.98% recidivism rate over the last three years and the $42.14 daily costs of housing a prisoner were both said to be “one of the lowest in the country.” Finally, the $30 million in free labor prisoners performed are “developing much needed work ethics” while helping “local, county, state, and charitable organizations.”
Jody Owens, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Mississippi office, praised Epp’s work in heading a task force that adopted de-incarceration proposals. These proposals are anticipated to save taxpayers $266 million over the next decade. “It’s one of Epp’s more significant contributions,” said Owens, who served on the task force. “It recognizes the state has been wrong in sentencing and rehabilitation.”
However, MDOC currently has four private prisons, and the picture emerging from several of them makes the darkness most people evoke when thinking of prison a horrid reality for those held captive in those prisons.
A Hard Look
Over the last few years, MDOC’s budget has escalated from $329 million in 2012 to $389 million in 2014. That $389 million is $79 million more than the money the state will spend on hospitals, the judiciary and justice, economic development, drug enforcement, and disaster relief. For that money, MDOC houses about 19,972 people each year.
Some of those individuals are housed in private prisons, run by private companies. Private companies receive $79 million annually to operate MDOC’s for profit prisons: Marshal County (MCCF), East Mississippi (EMCF), Walnut Grove (WGCF), and Wilkenson County Correctional Facilities (WCCF). WCCF is MDOC’s deadliest prison.
If it were a city of 100,000, it would have 111 homicides annually. By comparison, Detroit had 54.6 murders per 100,000.
Prisoners using cellphones sent out pictures showing entire walls being ripped to remove reinforcing steel, which is used to fashion weapons. Clarion-Ledger reporter Jerry Mitchell wrote that while talking to prisoners he “could hear banging inside the prison that sounded like a busy construction site-a sound that continued for some time.” Prisoners said the sound was metal striking metal as gang members made weapons.
After viewing the cellphone pictures from inside WCCF, former Corrections Commissioner Robert L. Johnson commented, “This is incompetency at its worst,” adding, “Honestly, I think it is symptomatic of the profit motive that drives a lot of the corrections industry instead of concern for public safety.”
The Clarion-Ledger received an even more disturbing video. It showed the May 25, 2014 murder of Kendrick “Mud Cat” Walker. Just a year from completing a 10 year sentence for drug and fire arm possession, Walker, 33, was stabbed 81 times in an incident that took 27 minutes for guards to respond.
An investigative report found there was animosity between prisoners in WCCF’s F Pod and Walker, a Bloods gang member. The video shows prisoner Kerwin “Schoolboy” Franklin, at 12:30 p.m. break the handle off a broom and stab Walker in the back as he sat at a table. Other prisoners joined in the attack.
Prisoner Adrian Williams, a fellow Blood, came to Walker’s aid and was attacked himself. After stabbing Williams, the attackers turned to Walker, who had climbed to the top of the showers, jumped from the top tier, and locked himself in an unoccupied cell.
A standoff began. At 12:24 p.m., prisoner Mike Powell walked to the tower and appears to communicate with the guard. Three minutes later, the attackers set Walker’s jean jacket on fire. Another group of prisoners came to render Williams aid, but their attempt to get guards’ assistance resulted in no help.
Powell sat on a table facing the tower at 12:30. After checking on Williams a minute later, Powell banged on the tower window, pointing to where Walker was secured behind the locked door. Powell then walked over to the shower and sharpened his shank on the wall. Then, he shook hands with a prisoner aiding Williams.
Powell again sat down at the table at 12:32, this time facing the tower. A few moments later, he signaled the tower. Powell then got off the table, walked to the tower, and pointed to the cell holding Walker. Then, he pointed at Williams on the floor, after which ensued a 17 second conversation between Powell and the guard.
Powell is seen walking to a corner to talk to another prisoner, walking slowly up the stairs, and then running to the cell holding Walker. Prisoners told investigators they heard the metallic buzz of the tower guard opening the door.
Walker tried to charge out, but Powell and other prisoners jumped in to stab him. When he jumped over the stair rail, Powell followed. At a nearby shower, Powell and others beat, stabbed, kicked, and smashed Walker with a microwave. As he lay crumpled under the stairway, the attackers walk away. When Powell sees Walker move, he goes over and stomps him. Apparently dead, another prisoner urinates on Walker.
The chief of security, Maj. Gabriel Walker, did not enter the pod until 12:47 with a response team, 11 minutes after Walker crumpled to the ground. By then, much of the crime scene had been cleaned up and the weapons removed.
Despite an order to return to their cells, Powell continued to clean off blood, received fresh clothes after disposing of the bloody set, and walked out of the pod “unescorted and unrestrained.” He even took Walker’s mattress back to his cell. Powell rebuffed Maj. Walker’s attempt to handcuff him from behind, and finally submitted to being cuffed in the front. He was never searched.
As for Kendrick Walker, guards made no efforts to render medical assistance. His body was not removed by guards until 1:28 p.m. – 41 minutes after they entered.
The September 1, 2013 murder of Central Mississippi Correctional Facility prisoner Clifton Majors by gang member Tyler “Psycho” Smith is another incident where a guard opened a cell for an attacker. Upon Smith’s request, the guard opened Majors’ cell and Smith went into the cell to beat and choke Majors to death.
Security Threat Groups-Not Gangs
MDOC has 5,520 prisoners classified as belonging to a Security Threat Group (STG). However, it is suspected that the true number of STG prisoners is much higher than official figures would indicate.
“When you walk in, you walk into bedlam,” said one MDOC prisoner. “Gang members stab people down and nothing happens to them.”
There is no doubt, at least to staff, as to who is in control. “The gangs run the prison,” said Tangi Truelove, who worked at EMCF as a crisis counselor in 2013. “It’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Commissioner Epps disagrees. “These inmates are identified as Security Threat Groups,” he said. “The inmates are classified appropriately, following the national trend of correctional practitioners.”
However, reports from prisoners and their families paint a different picture. Prisoners who are not gang members or who refuse to join a gang are called “peons”. They are subject to the gang’s rule. Peons must pay gang members “dues” if they want to shower. To live unharmed in their cells, peons must pay “rent”. The gangs get paid via Green Dot Cards (prepaid debit cards), and the failure to pay can result in a beating or stabbing.
Janet Stewart received a call before Christmas 2013, asking if she wanted to see her son alive again. The caller, a prisoner at WCCF, requested $400. “When somebody says he has your kid for ransom, you’re going to pay,” she said. “You’re going to do everything you can to keep them alive.”
Despite sending the money, gang members stabbed her son anyways days later. Upset, she texted the gang member to ask why. His reply: “Those are just growing pains”. Sabrina Clanton said her family was sending ransom money to protect her 17 year old son while at WCCF and WGCF. “His family and friends were all sending money,” she said. “There are armed, roving members of gangs. Under gang law, you must be toting a weapon,” said a WCCF prisoner. The prison is in constant chaos, “and absurdity has become the norm.”
Epps criticized such claims by prisoners’ families being taken as “a fact.”
Buying a Guard
Gangs are becoming an issue for prison officials throughout the nation. Among the problem are guards who belong to gangs. Truelove says she would see guards with gang tattoos. “I asked a couple of them, and they said, ‘that’s my past life.’ ”
PLN previously reported on guard gang members being discovered at Parchman Correctional Facility. [See: PLN, April 2008, p. 22]. Such a membership is grounds for automatic termination. Even for guards who are not gang affiliated, Truelove says gangs “own them”.
Under the terms of its contract to operate, WCCF Management & Training Corporation (MTC) must make every effort to hire from the 1,026 eligible local residents in Woodsville. Once hired, the newbie guards receive four weeks of training and are only required to have a high school diploma or G.E.D. Michigan, by contrast, requires guards to have a college education, certificate in corrections, and pass a lengthy civil service exam. It then provides 16 weeks of training.
“When you’re a kid basically who’s fresh out of high school and had a couple of jobs in your life like McDonalds’s and Wal-Mart, and you come to work at a prison, you’ve got a tough road to haul,” testified EMCF guard Matthew Naidow in testimony in a lawsuit against the prison filed by SPLC and ACLU.
The starting salary for an MDOC guard is $22,006 a year. Prisoners are aware that the guards’ salary is in the poverty zone, and the gangs are in a position to offer a salary supplement.
“We can improve your salary a whole lot if will make a few trips into Jackson for me,” former Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF) guard Hanna Bridges recalls a prisoner suggesting to her. “You can see corruption. It’s everywhere.”
“I don’t know of any drug that didn’t make the door and come on in,” she said. “It was a free-flowing retail store out there. You know so much, but you can’t report it.” She said snitches can have drugs or other contraband planted in their vehicles.
One former gang leader told the Clarion-Ledger that guards found it difficult to resist the fast-money offers. He would approach a new guard and ask: “How’d you like to make a $1,000.” That much would net the gang $10,000.
Another former prisoner saw a female guard pull roll after roll of tobacco out of her shirt. “There must have been 20 pounds,” said Bill Hartman. “Money talks, and staff are ridiculously poor.”
Contraband is a lucrative market for those willing to take the risk. Cellphones are especially hot items: a flipphone is $500; a touchscreen phone is $800; chargers cost $250, a 15 gram pack of marijuana for $1,000. For $25, a prisoner can purchase 2 regular joints, 1 hydroponic joint or 2 loritabs.
Prisoner Anthony Michael Jones is in a special unit for those caught with cellphones. From that unit, he called his father, Mike, on a cellphone. “He told me, ‘There are 70 people in here and like 50 cellphones,’” said Mike Jones. “When I asked him how, he said, ‘Dad, the guards sell them.’ ”
MDOC has referred 63 cases involving guards smuggling contraband since 2010. In April 2014, it was reported that two CMCF guards were charged with possession of prohibited items by persons other than offenders, for possessing tobacco.
Guard Erling Gresham, 26, was discovered with 2.80 ounces of tobacco secreted in his 12 inch bread-only sandwich. He told investigators a prisoner offered him $200 to bring in the tobacco. On March 26, guard Tamikta Russell, 34, was found to have 6.40 ounces of tobacco, 48.70 grams of marijuana and other contraband in plastic bags stashed in burritos inside a Tupperware bowl.
To combat the contraband problem, MDOC is taking bold steps. It installed 17 body scanners on December 1, 2013 at three state prisons and the four private prisons. It also spent $1.3 million to install a 40-foot high netting around CMCF, WCCF, WGCF, EMCF, and four units at Mississippi State Prison at Parchman (Parchman). A system to intercept incoming and outgoing cellphone calls was installed at Parchman in 2010, blocking 5.9 million calls and texts.
“We are in a new era where people will use any means to get contraband into prisons,” said Epps. “Therefore, we must think outside the box. Nothing good comes from contraband being in the hands of inmates.”
As for addressing the root of the contraband problem, that is not in the plans. While acknowledging “a pay increase would certainly benefit staff and would help MDOC attract a wider pool of correctional officers,” Epps said he believes character determines if guards will accept bribes.
The Killing Field
Gang violence is nothing new for MDOC. PLN previously reported on gang violence at Parchman’s Unit 32. The most egregious case in 2007 involved Boris Harper being speared to death with a mop handle as he passed the cell of prisoner Lamarcus Lee Hillard. Two more prisoners were killed at Unit 32 that summer. [See: PLN, May 2008, p. 16].
The violence and gang activity at Unit 32 became so pervasive, and drew so much media attention, that Epps was forced to close it. The gang members were moved to other Units of Parchman or other prisons.
On June 11, 2013, an all-out gang war ensued at Parchman’s Unit 29. In the melee, 11 prisoners and one staff member were injured. Prisoner Kelvin Bowen was fatally stabbed to death.
When Unit 32 shut down, WCCF was converted from a Low-to Medium-security prison. The increase of gang leaders and members made it known as “the new Unit 32.”
Between 2011 and 2013, when it was operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), monthly reports showed WCCF to be the most violent prison in the state. At Parchman, prisoners stand a 1 in 16 chance if assault; at WCCF, it is 1 in 7.
Prisoners refer to WCCF as “The Killing Field.” When Epps awarded the WCCF contract in July 2013, he expected change. “There is a need for different types of prisons, including state and regional as well as private facilities in Mississippi,” Epps said at the time. “MTC will be held to the same high standards as set by MDOC, and I feel extremely confident that MTC will do a great job.”
Yet, the violence continued. “We’re living in a Martin Scorsese movie,” said one WCCF prisoner. “We’re supposed to be on lockdown, and there are guys walking around with Samurai swords- 3 or 4-foot long swords.”
MTC, which operates all four MDOC private prisons, is struggling to control each of the prisons it oversees. As PLN reported, juvenile offenders were removed from WGCF after U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves found its conditions were “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts.” [See: PLN, November 2013, p. 30]. After MTC took over the prison from the GEO Group in 2012, little changed other than the management.
Court monitors reported on April 4, 2013, that WGCF reported “assaults involving weapons continue to occur at alarming levels.” In December 2013, an explosion of violence required at least 16 prisoners be taken to a hospital for treatment of injuries.
SPLC and ACLU attorneys described in court filings “a major escalation in inmate-on-inmate violence over the past several months at Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, and in the last seven months alone there have been two riots during which the [MDOC] lost control of the facility and 25 inmates were seriously wounded.”
One of those incidents occurred in early July 2014. That riot ensued after Marcus Warnsley was arrested outside the prison with a bag containing 11 footballs filled with knives, razors, cellphones and chargers, marijuana, and cigars. The scheme, Epps told a federal judge, involved guards and prisoners, including one guard who planned to let a prisoner collect the balls after they were thrown over the fence.
Once the bust occurred, the riot between two rival gangs erupted. Four guards were suspended for being involved in the contraband pass conspiracy.
Violence is seemingly accepted as a fact in these prisons. Truelove reported seeing machetes in EMCF. A prisoner one day tried to stab a nurse friend of hers. The guards refused to “take that shank away from the inmate,” she said. “When I asked them why, they told me, ‘that shank is probably in different cell now.’ They didn’t do anything. I knew then I was not safe.”
Even when conducting a shake down, guards’ safety is not assured. Seven guards at South Mississippi Correctional Institution were assaulted in September by five prisoners following a shake down. The guards suffered head and facial bruises.
Just the day before, a guard in another unit was struck by a bread tray thrown by a prisoner. The guard fell and struck his head on the floor; he was hospitalized.
“We do not know at this time what provoked these inmates to assault our officers,” said Epps. In July, three guards received “minor injuries” at EMCF while moving a prisoner to solitary confinement. After a guard told the prisoner to pack his property for the move, he stabbed one guard in the back. As the stabbed guard took the prisoner to the ground, another prisoner stabbed a second guard in the back and arm as he and another guard were using pepper spray on the first prisoner. The third guard received a small cut on the hand.
The darkness and chaotic conditions render no one safe in these prisons.
While taking a look at violence, corruption, and other elements of conditions that are available through statistics or video recordings is relatively simple, the physical conditions that prisoners live within often remain hidden.
“Prison wall don’t just keep prisoners from getting out,” said PLN’s managing editor Alex Friedmann, “they keep the public from looking in. One reason why our prison system is chronically overcrowded, dysfunctional, and abusive is because people rarely get to see and understand what prisons are really like.”
Currently, a view into conditions at WGCF and EMCF are available thanks to the efforts of prisoner civil rights advocates at SPLC and the ACLU. On September 25, 2015, Judge William H. Barbour, Jr. granted class action status for a lawsuit on conditions at EMCF.
“The lawsuit describes a facility where prisoners were often locked in filthy cells and ignored even when they were suffering from serious medical issues,” said a statement from SPLC. “Many cells lacked light and working toilets, forcing prisoners to use trays or plastic bags that are tossed through slots in their cell doors. Rats often climbed over prisoners’ beds. Some prisoners even captured the rats, put them on makeshift leashes, and sold them as pets to other prisoners.”
“This is a prison awash in contraband and easily accessible weapons, where severely chaotic conditions of confinement and no rational, functional way for prisoners to get legitimate issues addressed, put all prisoners as well as staff at ongoing risks of serious harm,” wrote Eldon Vail, former secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections, in a report on EMCF’s conditions after touring the prison. “They are the worst I have seen in 35 years as a corrections professional.”
“One man told me he had not had water in his sink for three weeks,” said Vail. “Another said he had been without water for four or five days. Another told me his toilet had not functioned for weeks.”
Vail reviewed video of incidents where prisoners set fires, break rules, or cut themselves to obtain basic care. In one such video, a prisoner is seen speaking to prison officials through the food slot of his cell door.
As the prisoner complains of being “treated like a dog,” a guard sprays pepper spray in his face. “Such a ‘sneak attack’ completely destroys any trust the inmate might have in speaking with mental health staff and will likely make the prisoner much harder to manage in the future,” wrote Vail.
Another video shows a prisoner warning guards before he is pepper sprayed that he has asthma; guards spray him anyway. The prisoner, whose t-shirt is already spattered with blood, collapses on the floor and coughs blood.
“This incident illustrates a complete callous disregard for the health and safety of the inmate, who was suffering from the effects of the gas and illustrates the risk of substantial harm for every prisoner in the facility,” Vail wrote.
Another prisoner in December 2013 met with an EMCF counselor to complain of hallucinations, his heart hurting, and not having any reason to live. The counselor concluded the prisoner was not in destress despite noticing he was using a small, dull object to attempt to cut himself and there was a long rope around the prisoner’s neck.
For the next nine days, the prisoner did not see a mental health counselor. He then went to a tactic many prisoners at EMCF use to get attention: He set a fire in his cell. Still, he received no attention. Two days later, he was found dead from an apparent heart condition.
“I cannot state with certainty the blatant and callous lack of care that his 43-year-old man received during his las months at EMCF caused his death,” wrote Dr. Marc F. Stern, a specialist in correctional care, in a report for SPLC. “However, I can state that it deprived him of any chance for continued survival.”
Health care officials were so indifferent to the prisoner’s condition that they recorded in his medical files that his vital signs were stable; that entry was made 10 hours after he died.
Falsified records that documented health care professionals’ rounds were apparent to one expert. “I found, almost literally without exception in each of the mental health charts I reviewed for patients with serious mental health needs at EMCF that their charts were grossly incomplete, unreliable, and in many cases with entries that were apparently fabricated,” wrote Bart Abplanalp, chief psychologist of the Washington Department of Corrections, in a 2014 report.
“There is not a single medical chart I opened…that did not immediately reveal multiple serious examples of life threatening defects in health care,” wrote Dr. Stern. “Every aspect and dimension of health care delivery at EMCF is dysfunctional.
Those held in segregation cells linger for weeks or months in total darkness. “During my tour of EMCF, a large majority of the cells in the segregation units were dark in the middle of the day, and most of the inhabitants of the cells were lying on their bunks in darkness,” wrote Dr. Terry Kupers, a nationally recognized expert on correctional mental health care. “I have never, in my 40 years touring prisons, seen anything like this.”
In November 2012, the president of MTC toured the prison and was quoted as saying “the living conditions were awful.” Vail agreed, and said nothing has changed.
“The corporate president was correct. Conditions in segregation are still awful today,” wrote Vail. “It is tragic that nearly a year and a half later, those units and the showers are still in that condition.”
During his tour, Vail observed blood on the floor outside of a shower, exposed wiring in cells, and a “smoldering pile of debris in the middle of the day room floor.”
In its lawsuit, the SPLC and ACLU called the conditions at EMCF “barbaric.” Prisoners even must fight to be fed. “The gang members pass out the food trays,” said one prisoner, who sometimes does not get fed because of the gang’s control.
While Epps may have hoped that a change in contractors would improve conditions at the privatized prisons, it is the underlying aim of privatization itself that is the root cause, say prisoner advocates.
“The incentive for a for-profit prison is to house as many persons as possible,” said the Rev. Tom Clark. “The state has an incentive to use the private prisons. The incentive of the state is to reduce costs and the incentive for the private, for-profit is to increase profit. It becomes a kind of perfect storm.”
Government services can be provided better and cheaper by a private company, but not in the case of prisons. “They have no incentive, really, to improve and rehabilitate the prisoners. They are being paid by the number of people they have. If they were being paid by how successfully they could have their prison population re-enter society, that would be one thing,” said Clark. “They are trying to cut costs. Cutting costs reduces services. Reducing services causes failures in health care [and] psychiatric care for a lot of prisoners who have mental problems”.
MDOC, once again, hopes it can make change with a new contract for its four private prisons. MDOC “has determined that more security staff is needed for effective security, custody, control, and care” of prisoners at MCCF, EMCF, WGCF, and WCCF, announced Epps in August 2014. “The type of inmates we are now housing system wide requires more resources. Therefore, our current agreements will be terminated for convenience effective Nov. 30.”
The bid winner, however, will not be determined by Epps, for he resigned as MDOC Commissioner on November 1, 2014 after an indictment charging him with corruption was unsealed. Gov. Phil Bryant ordered all contracts listed in the indictment be re-bid and all other MDOC contracts be reviewed “to insure they were both legally procured and in the best interest of taxpayers.”
Meanwhile, the SPLC and ACLU will push forward with litigation to improve conditions at EMCF, for its conditions demands focus on the matter. “The prison is in chaos, with conditions so dangerous-violence, filth, callous denial of prisoners’ serious medical and mental health needs-that the only meaningful remedy is an injunction to protect all prisoners,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.
PLN will report developments as they occur.
Sources: The Clarion-Ledger, meridianstar.com, Associated Press