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‘Years of deliberate indifference’: Justice Dept. says conditions at Parchman violate Constitution

Published: Apr. 20, 2022 at 12:32 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 20, 2022 at 4:46 PM CDT
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SUNFLOWER CO., Miss. (WLBT) - The U.S. Department of Justice released a report Wednesday regarding conditions at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman that they say are unconstitutional.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Civil Rights Division, U.S. Attorney Clay Joyner for the Northern District of Mississippi, and U.S. Attorney Darren J. LaMarca for the Southern District of Mississippi mapped out the facility’s conditions in a 59-page report.

They say there is reason to believe that there are violations of both the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The Eighth Amendment deals with issues of cruel and unusual punishments; it also outlaws excessive bail and fines.

Per DOJ, there are two criteria that must be met to establish a prison is in violation of the Eighth Amendment: a substantial risk of serious harm (violence, illness, or injury) to inmates and an awareness and purposeful neglection by prison officials of this risk.

The Fourteenth Amendment says, in part, that no state can “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

The report does not go in-depth on the supposed Fourteenth amendment violations.

There are four specific areas where the Justice Department believes the Mississippi Department of Corrections is failing to provide constitutional rights to inmates at Parchman:

  • Failing to provide adequate mental health treatment to people with serious mental health needs: the Justice Department says MDOC’s intake screening and mental health assessments are flawed and fail to properly identify inmates who need mental health care. They also say Parchman does not have enough qualified mental health staff to meet the inmates’ needs.

The DOJ report shows Parchman is regularly staffed with just half of the positions needed, with one external study showing a 59% vacancy rate among correctional officers.

“Although MDOC has made some efforts recently to recruit and hire more staff, Parchman has been operating with roughly half the needed staff since at least 2018. This demonstrates MDOC’s indifference to instituting reasonable remedies to address Parchman’s supervision crisis,” the report reads.

DOJ says the mental health intake screening at the prison is “more accurately described as a suicide screening form,” and fails to ask individuals about the need for other mental health issues.

“In addition, screening staff make no attempt to confirm any of the information an incarcerated person reports on intake. Staff fail to obtain any additional information on the person’s reported treatment, symptoms, or mental health history from prior health records, community providers, family members, or former institutions,” the report reads.

Just 10% of Parchman inmates are given mental health treatment, in comparison to 25-30% at most correctional facilities.

The report adds that while Parchman staff acknowledges a large number of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among inmates, there is no trauma-informed care at the facility, even if the person has been diagnosed with PTSD before being incarcerated.

They provide an example of a war veteran with PTSD who repeatedly asked for therapy, triggered by events happening on death row, but never received it. The nurse practitioner told him there was “nothing she could do” to help him with problems on the unit, but diagnosed him with PTSD and restarted his medication.

Another example is provided of an inmate diagnosed with ASPD (Antisocial Personality Disorder) before being transferred to Parchman who only received a brief prescription for an antidepressant after a nurse practitioner found he had anxiety, restlessness, irritability, racing thoughts, distractibility, and insomnia. In September 2020, he reported being raped at Parchman. After being examined, the nurse practitioner determined there was no reason to continue his medication and removed him from the mental health caseload.

DOJ adds that the records show an overreliance on diagnosing inmates with substance-induced disorders.

“When making such a diagnosis, one must consider whether the drug can cause the symptoms at issue, whether the usage is sufficient to cause the symptoms, and whether symptoms remit when the person stops taking the drug. We found no evidence that Parchman mental health staff considered these issues when diagnosing an incarcerated individual with a substance-induced disorder. When making a diagnosis, mental health clinicians do not even direct drug testing to determine if a person is under the influence.”

  • Failing to take sufficient suicide prevention measures to protect people at risk of self-harm: the Justice Department says MDOC is not identifying inmates who are at risk of suicide, often housing them in dangerous areas that are not suicide-resistant and often unsupervised.

The DOJ report found just two out of 15 medical charts were completed correctly for inmates placed on suicide watch between December 2020 and April 2021.

They claim Parchman nursing staff open skip vital questions such as a history of being on suicide watch, current thoughts of suicide or self-harm, a history of suicide attempts, psychiatric hospitalizations, or alcohol/substance abuse.

“Moreover, the form unreasonably limits inquiry into prior suicide watch to 30 days prior to the date of the screen. This 30-day cut-off is an arbitrary timeframe with no meaningful, clinical implication. Many incarcerated persons who committed suicide had prior histories of placement on suicide precautions that occurred outside this 30-day window, and therefore this important information was not captured in their intrasystem suicide screens,” the report reads.

The DOJ says Parchman’s staff lacks the skills to identify people at risk and respond to emergencies related to suicide or self-harm.

“Suicide prevention training at Parchman is uneven, disjointed, and grossly inadequate at best, and non-existent at worst.”

Parchman’s mental health director told officials that the suicide prevention training for correctional officers is completed in 1.5 hours--much shorter than the referenced curriculum, which is designed to be completed in 10-12 hours.

The DOJ found that people on suicide watch are housed in psychiatric observation cells, which are not built to prevent suicide.

“These cells contain a metal-framed bed with large holes, ceiling ventilation grates with large chicken-wire screening, wall ventilation grates and CCTV monitors that are not flush with the wall, and square screws protruding under the windows.”

At least one person, a 20-year-old with a history of prior suicide attempts, committed suicide within one of these cells. After he was removed from suicide, officers observed him making an attempt on his life. After supposedly removing all of the items within his cell, officers found the 20-year-old hanging in his cell an hour later. One officer later admitted to forgetting to remove a second bedsheet from the cell.

The report also found deficiencies when responding to suicide attempts, such as letting the victims fall to the floor unsupported after being cut down, checking pulses with a ligature still tied around the inmate’s neck, or simply leaving the person hanging until the arrival of medical staff or the coroner.

The report found nine out of 20 suicide cases were discovered hours after their deaths.

  • Subjecting people to prolonged isolation in solitary confinement in egregious conditions that place their physical and mental health at substantial risk of serious harm: the Justice Department says MDOC is subjecting inmates to “segregation in restrictive housing for months and even years under egregious environmental conditions that pose a substantial risk of serious harm from psychological deterioration.” They say there have been 12 suicides at Parchman in the last three years--all occurring in restrictive housing.

The DOJ says MDOC’s use of solitary confinement has crossed the line where it is used as a tool for cruel and unusual punishment.

The people in close custody confinement are locked alone in single cells for 23 hours per day, with one hour for recreation and showers three times per week. The report finds that people often remain in close custody confinement for an average of 515 days.

They also map out the “decrepit” conditions in these cells, including crumbling ceilings, leaking water, holes in the walls and floors, and inoperable showers.

“In addition to facing these decrepit conditions, incarcerated persons are locked down in dark cells often without lighting, operable toilets and sinks with clean water, or mattresses or pillows.”

One example portrays a person who’s been in restrictive housing since September 2001. In February 2021, he expressed ideas of suicide, which were captured within the clinician’s notes, but no suicide risk assessment was done. Two weeks later, he hung himself with a bedsheet. A unit officer said the man had asked for relief from the extreme heat in the cell, which the officer’s supervisors told him not to turn down. A report showed temperatures in the unit to range from 95 to 145.1 degrees, with an average temperature of 128.4.

“As these cases exemplify, incarcerated persons in prolonged restrictive housing in egregious conditions at Parchman can and do suffer mental harm, and this harm is evidenced by self-injurious behavior.”

  • Failing to protect incarcerated people from violence at the hands of other incarcerated people: the Justice Department says MDOC is inadequately staffed and has subpar contraband control. They say this has led to 10 homicides since 2019, along with “an environment rife with weapons, drugs, gang activity, extortion, and violence.”

The report found more than 100 documented assaults at Parchman from 2018 through May 2020. About 25 percent of these assaults involved stabbings. DOJ says there are likely many more undocumented assaults.

They also documented a fatal stabbing, believed to be gang-related, from October 2020 where they say there was one correctional officer assigned to the area, who did not observe any signs of a disturbance from her position in a tower. Three hours after the stabbing, an inmate alerted the officer of the stabbing, and help was called. The victim was pronounced dead several minutes later.

Video surveillance shows that three inmates followed the victim into the shower and stabbed him at least 12 times. A supervisor said the last time any staff entered that unit was roughly 5.5 hours before the stabbing occurred.

“The investigation report, however, does not investigate the alleged gang cause or take any interest in what happened to the apparently unrecovered weapon,” DOJ’s report reads.

Another report from January 2021 shows an inmate had been stabbed and had not been found until 12 hours later. He later died from blunt force trauma that included multiple injuries to his torso, rib fractures, and cranial fractures. It wasn’t until Sunflower County Sheriff’s Department called a Parchman security supervisor about the report of a stabbing at Unit 30 that a welfare check was done, roughly 30 minutes after the call.

Another homicide happened just hours later in the same unit and building.

During a welfare check, staff found a man lying motionless in bed. The staff was initially unable to call an ambulance because a nearby phone in the building was inoperable.

“Our investigation uncovered evidence of systemic violations that have generated a violent and unsafe environment for people incarcerated at Parchman. We are committed to taking action that will ensure the safety of all people held at Parchman and other state prison facilities. We look forward to working with state officials to institute comprehensive reforms,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said.

The report says the issues are “severe, systemic and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision.”

Clarke said this is the first time in history the Justice Department has concluded that a prison’s use of solitary confinement is unconstitutional for people without serious mental illness.

The report says MDOC has been on notice of these violations for years and has failed to address the violations.

“Years of MDOC’s deliberate indifference has resulted in serious harm and a substantial risk of serious harm to persons confined at Parchman,” the report reads.

Clarke says the Justice Department has presented its findings to the state of Mississippi and they are hopeful for a “mutually acceptable agreement” that addresses the Constitutional violations.

The investigation was launched in February 2020. That’s one month after the release of a 2019 inspection report from the Mississippi State Department of Health that reveals many cells in the prison lacked power, pillows, and mattresses.

That report also mapped out black mold in the showers, bird nests inside cells, and unlabeled or expired food.

Team ROC, a division of JAY-Z’s entertainment company Roc Nation who sounded the alarm on the issues in January 2020, issued this statement:

There is also an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department at Southern Mississippi Correctional Institution, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.

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