One thing is certain: More people died in Mississippi prisons than any other month in the past six years, according to records from the Department of Corrections. As the death toll rose, it was unclear if the rate was higher, lower or the same as previous months. Also, why people were dying. The department released a statement by Pelicia Hall, its commissioner: “The number reported by the department is consistent with previous months’ deaths.” Mississippi Today requested a complete list and cause of death for all those who died in MDOC custody in this year. This is what we found: How many Mississippi prisoners have died this year? Between January and August this year, 57 people were killed in state custody. In 2017, 52 prisoners had died, which is approximately 10% less than the number who died in 2017. Grace Fisher, spokesperson for MDOC, said that the department has had two deaths of prisoners in September. These 16 deaths are an unusually high number compared to other summer months. In July, two prisoners died. In June, one was reported. Nicole Rathman was due to be released from prison. Five days later, she died. However, the number of in-custody death rates varies from month to month. The department has recorded one to two deaths in some months and eleven or twelve others in others. According to Mississippi Today data, approximately five people per month have died in state custody each month since 2012. About half of Mississippi’s in custody deaths in the past two years have been in the state’s three major prisons: Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman, and South Mississippi Correctional Institution, Leakesville. An earlier Mississippi Today analysis revealed that the death rate at Parchman prison, which is the largest in the state, was actually higher than that of the general population. According to the most recent Bureau of Justice statistics, Mississippi’s in-custody death rate was sixth in the nation between 2001 and 2014. This rate includes federal prisoner held in each state. What were the causes? Hall and other officials have stated that most deaths last month were due to natural causes like cancer. MDOC records don’t list specific causes of death. The information instead lists “natural” as 13 deaths in the last month. The department previously provided data concerning in-custody death which provided more details about the causes of death between 2012 and 2017. Marshall Goff, a lawyer representing the agency, stated that Mississippi Today had previously received more detailed information concerning in-custody deaths between 2012 and 2017. Each case must be processed by the underfunded, short-staffed medical examiner’s bureau. Officials have indicated that official autopsy results may be delayed by up to six months. Willie Hollinghead’s family and Nicole Rathman’s relatives, whose deaths were “undetermined”, told Mississippi Today they had received little clarity from the prison or medical staff. Nija Bonhomme, another inmate, was killed in a fight at Wilkinson County Correctional Facility. Bonhomme, an inmate of one of the private prisons run by MTC, was the last to die. His death was ruled a homicide. The state has so far recorded three homicides, and two suicides this year in its prisons. According to department data, the vast majority of deaths in prisons in 2018 were due to natural causes. However, 11 cases, including two that date back to January, remain unsolved. The ages of the prisoners who died in 2018 ranged from 24 to 92. Four out of the 57 deaths that the state reported through August were women. Who is investigating the deaths? Governor and other state officials are involved in the investigation. Phil Bryant, and Lt. Governor. Tate Reeves, the chair of both the Senate corrections and state House corrections committees have all expressed concern about last month’s deaths. Bryant noted that both federal and state agencies are investigating any possible wrongdoing. Bryant suggested that the investigation could uncover wrongdoing in a WLOX-TV interview this week. He said that he believes there were only a few instances in which a correctional officers did not do the right thing. Hall, the corrections commissioner, called on both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to investigate the matter for transparency. It’s not clear how long or what the repercussions of such an investigation could be. The Department of Public Safety has yet to comment on whether it is involved in any investigation. The FBI released a statement last week stating that it would contact MDOC to “examine the facts.” A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment on the investigation. What next for Mississippi’s prisons? On September 17, Pelicia Hall, the corrections commissioner, and other prison officials will appear at a budget hearing in Mississippi. They will present budget requests totaling $365 million to the agency. $73 million is requested for healthcare spending. In the past, the state has been criticized for not spending enough on healthcare for prisoners. A similar number of MDOC prisoners died in spring 2017 raising concerns about whether sufficient funding was available to meet the demands of the nearly 20,000 prisoners. What information do you need about Mississippi prison conditions and deaths? Ask questions here, and a Mississippi Today journalist will respond. You can also read the rest of Mississippi Today’s coverage about last month’s increase in prison deaths.