/State, private prisons again on trial in Mississippi

State, private prisons again on trial in Mississippi

Monday’s trial in Dockery v. Hall will focus on conditions at East Mississippi Correctional Facility. The Meridian facility, which has 1,500 beds, is intended to house the most mentally ill in the state. Approximately 80 percent of those in it have been diagnosed with mental illness. After a two-year investigation conducted by civil-liberty advocacy organizations, the lawsuit was filed in May 2013. Later, the case was granted class-action status. It now has more than 1,100 participants. According to the lawsuit, the Mississippi Department of Corrections “has deliberately ignored and failed to remedy the life-threatening circumstances that persist at the prison,” which is managed by Management & Training Corp. of Centerville, Utah, the third-largest private corrections company in the United States. Pelicia Hall was named as the defendant after she served as interim commissioner for two month. The original complaint stated that plaintiffs are at risk of severe harm, including death, because they live in a dangerous prison environment marked by inadequate security and staff abdication, significant gang control and malfunctioning cell doors locking mechanisms and readily available weapons. Jody Owens is the managing attorney of the Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center. He stated that the conditions in the prison where his organization filed the lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union (and private law firms) still exist today. Owens stated that prisons are large facilities, and that private prisons, especially, have a practice of understaffing their prisons. The Mississippi Department of Corrections did not respond to this story and said that the agency would present its case before the court. Issa Arunita, the spokesperson for the private prison company (which is not named in the lawsuit but will be testifying during the trial), said that he couldn’t speak about specific allegations due to the ongoing court case. “We can affirm that the East Mississippi Correctional Facility has been well managed, safe, secure, clean and maintained. Our staff is trained to treat men under our care with respect and dignity, starting at the warden. Arnita stated in an email that our mission was to assist these men in making choices in prison. Once they are released, it will be possible to lead a new and successful lifestyle in society. In the statement, Arnita also provided information on security and staffing improvements at East Mississippi Correctional Facility. These include installing full-body scanners, motion sensors, and upgrading fencing. The company also increased training and added staff to certain areas. The prison’s reality is far worse than it appears, according to attorneys. Owens cites four deaths at the prison that occurred since 2018. Two of them were due to an overdose of synthetic marijuana called Spice and one was caused by a prisoner who choked in the dining room. He said that there are not enough officers and people selling food to avoid fighting. Eric Balaban is a senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project. He stated that even though there are a lot of mentally ill prisoners in the prison, “the most basic elements a mental healthcare system are missing.” “This means that very seriously mentally ill men are unnecessarily suffering from the facility. Balaban stated that they become more sick, more psychotic and more isolated. Mississippi contracts with Centurion of Mississippi LLC (a division of Centene Corp. in St. Louis) to provide medical services at its facilities. According to state records, the contract covers $150 million over three years. Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., reported that three companies have provided health services to the prison since 2011. Erin Monju said that all three of these have been “grossly insufficient.” “It’s MDOC’s responsibility to ensure state prisoners receive adequate healthcare. She said that it is also the responsibility of MDOC to ensure that contractors adhere to the terms and conditions of the contract. Monju said that although these contractors received multi-million-dollar contracts from Mississippi, Mississippi is not receiving the services it has paid for. Monju said that MDOC does not hold these contractors accountable. The lawsuit is filed three years after prisoner rights attorneys argued in federal courts to allow for a settlement at Walnutgrove Correctional Facility in Leake County. This facility was also managed by Management & Training Corp. Mississippi closed the prison in 2016 but said it would look into other uses, such as housing mentally ill prisoners.