3 On Your Side Investigates: Dangerous Conditions

3 on your side: Dangerous Conditions

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Mississippi’s correctional system has already seen 25 inmate deaths this year -- six of them ruled homicides -- but the state agency in charge of solving those killings has yet to release any information in those cases more than a month later.

In fact, the head of the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ investigation division tells 3 On Your Side the last time an inmate was indicted for killing another was nearly two years ago.

“A lot of times, especially in those environments, in a controlled environment, all it takes is talk to that one right person and they’ll give you every answer you need, but until you do, until you find that person, you’re still looking," said Barry Vaughn, who serves as the Rankin County Jail administrator.

Vaughn knows a lot about those kinds of death investigations behind bars.

In the three and a half years he’s been in charge of the Rankin County Detention Center, he said he investigated two deaths that ended up being of natural causes.

However, they didn’t know that at first.

“We have to treat it like a crime scene, you know, until we get some of the answers we’re looking for," Vaughn said.

Finding enough evidence to lead to an arrest can be hard when a death occurs inside a correctional facility.

“You’re dealing with sometimes career criminals who might not talk to law enforcement, or they might not give information, or you have people who give a lot of information but don’t know anything about it and they just want a get out of jail free card," Vaughn said. “'Hey, I saw exactly what happened. I’ll tell you exactly what happened’ if they get a bond set or a lower bond, or get out of jail, and then you start talking to them. They have no clue what happened.”

Those interviews end up delaying a case even more.

Keep in mind that the Rankin County Detention Center does not house state inmates, though, and their procedures are different than what happens when a state inmate dies in a correctional facility.

MDOC investigates deaths in its own facilities -- Parchman, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County, and South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Greene County.

In fact, the Department of Corrections is still investigating the killings of these five inmates that took place in January.

But at this point, more than a month later, nobody has been arrested or charged in those cases.

3 On Your Side reached out to MDOC one week prior to this story, hoping to get someone with the agency who could shed some light on these concerns.

The agency’s Corrections Investigation Division Director, Sean Smith, told us they "cannot comment on on-going investigations.”

Might make one wonder if MDOC’s own facilities make it harder to solve these killings.

Past inspections have shown prison walls, cells, and hallways in horrible conditions, with leaking roofs, a lack of electricity and even no running water in some areas.

That begs the question: do MDOC’s surveillance cameras in those areas even work? Would they have captured something to help investigators?

Paul Holley with the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department said those cameras can make or break a case.

“We try to make sure that we have everything covered so we can access [those cameras] without having to rely on eyewitness statements or the lack of eyewitness statements," Holley said. "We average around 450 inmates on a daily basis whereas I believe CMCF is around 3,600, so they’ve got a lot more to cover than we do.”

3 On Your Side asked Smith if surveillance cameras worked in those areas where killings took place, but he dodged the question.

“We cannot comment on the presence or location of surveillance cameras," Snith said in a statement released to 3 On Your Side Tuesday.

Smith also failed to answer what specific steps MDOC has been taking to protect these inmates, a question the Department of Justice is trying to answer right now with its own investigation.

He did, however, say there are five cases where an inmate has been indicted for killing another, and those cases are awaiting trial.

The victims in those cases were killed between 2016 and 2018, he said.

Below is the list of questions 3 On Your Side submitted to MDOC communications director Grace Fisher and the response received. The questions in bold indicate questions the department did not answer.

  • How does the Mississippi Department of Corrections investigate inmate deaths? Can you take me through the process involved?
  • Does MDOC have a specific division or department dedicated to this?
  • If a death takes place outside a state facility, i.e. a regional correctional facility, who investigates those? It’s our understanding that MDOC investigates if it’s in a state‐owned facility, but MBI is brought in when it’s a regional correctional one.
  • Should an investigation reveal an inmate has killed another, what happens next? Are charges brought before a grand jury for indictment or does this process stay within MDOC?
  • What are the challenges inherently involved in investigating homicides behind bars?
  • According to our information, nine homicides have taken place since November 2019 involving state inmates: 7 in Parchman, 1 at SMCI, and one at the Chickasaw County Regional Correctional Facility. What is the status of those investigations? Have arrests or charges been made in any of those cases?
  • For the families of those victims, why is it taking so long to solve these crimes?
  • When’s the last time the homicide of a state inmate was solved and charges brought?
  • What about surveillance cameras in state facilities like Parchman? In these killings that haven’t been solved, did surveillance cameras work in those areas to capture what took place?
  • Information we’ve received from MDOC suggests that several inmates’ cause and manner of deaths have not been determined. I’m listing them in hopes you can provide any additional information, if available: Steven Bennett, Byrn Ellis, Limarion Reaves, Jesus Garcia, Bobby Lewis Vance, David Lee May, Paul Joseph Capps, Timothy R. Sharp, Patricia A. Wilhite, Lee R. Clemmer Jr., Grayland Cox, Parchman inmate (unidentified) who died on March 7, 2020
  • Given the number of inmates who have died in recent months, what specific steps has the Mississippi Department of Corrections already taken to protect them?
  • What additional precautions will be taken over time to ensure proper care and safety, especially considering the less‐than‐habitable conditions revealed in last year’s Mississippi Department of Health inspection?

MDOC’s response, from Sean Smith:

“Upon notification of an inmate death, the Corrections Investigation Division of the Mississippi Department of Corrections conducts a thorough investigation. That investigation may include an examination of the location of death, review of medical records, review of phone records, and interview of witnesses. We must then wait on the crime lab for any needed analysis and the Medical Examiner for a cause of death. We initiate criminal charges where appropriate, by providing our completed investigation to the District Attorney’s office.

If a death takes place in a regional facility, the local sheriff’s office conducts the investigation and may sometimes involve the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations. We do ask that the sheriff’s office provide the results of its investigation, but we do not oversee the investigation. If a death takes place in a private facility, the private facility’s investigator conducts the investigation. In those instances, we review the investigation before it is submitted to the sheriff’s office. For MDOC investigations, the MBI is involved upon request.

If an investigation results in the finding that an inmate killed another, the results of the investigation are immediately sent to the District Attorney of that region for presentation to a grand jury. If the inmate is already in prison, we do not place the person under arrest. The inmate is already in custody. If the inmate is about to be released, including paroled, then the person is arrested pending indictment. One of the challenges to conducting investigations within prisons is finding cooperative witnesses.

As with any investigation, we want to be thorough and accurate. There is a process and a lot of the moving parts are not within the purview of MDOC. We must wait on other entities to complete their portion—such as the crime lab, autopsy, and the Medical Examiner report for cause of death—before we can complete an investigation.

At this time, there are five cases in which an inmate has been indicted for murdering another inmate, and all five are currently awaiting trial. There are several others that are either currently under investigation or that have been turned over to the District Attorney for presentation to a grand jury.

For the safety and security of the facility, staff, and inmates, we cannot comment on the presence or location of surveillance cameras.

We cannot comment on on-going investigations.”

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