Corruption, violence, drugs and gangs are 'pervasive' in 3 Mississippi prisons: Justice Department

The Mississippi Department of Corrections cooperated in the investigation.

February 28, 2024, 10:48 PM

Conditions at three Mississippi Department of Corrections prisons violated the U.S. Constitution, a blistering Justice Department report released on Wednesday concluded.

The three prisons the DOJ investigated -- Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, South Mississippi Correctional Institution and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, are "rampant" with drugs, violence and corruption, the Justice Department concluded.

"Across all these facilities, MDOC does not have enough staff to supervise the population," the report says. "The mismatch between the size of the incarcerated population and the number of security staff means that gangs dominate much of prison life, and contraband and violence, including sexual violence, proliferate."

The conditions at the prison violate both the 8th and 14th Amendments, according to the Justice Department. Conditions inside special housing units are dangerous and oftentimes lead to emotional and physical harm to inmates.

PHOTO: Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division announces at a news conference, Nov. 8, 2023, in Jackson, Miss.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division announces at a news conference, Nov. 8, 2023, in Jackson, Miss., that it has opened an investigation into the City of Lexington, Miss., and the Lexington Police Department, focusing on the police department's use of force and its stops, searches and arrests.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP

"Central Mississippi, South Mississippi, and Wilkinson are riddled with violence," according to the report. "MDOC fails to protect incarcerated persons at these facilities from widespread violence by other incarcerated individuals. Gross understaffing, poor supervision, and inadequate investigations create an environment where violent gang activity and dangerous contraband trafficking proliferate."

At Central Mississippi, there was, on average one assault every other day from 2020 to 2022, at South Mississippi there were 100 assaults, and at Wilkinson, there were 150 - these figures however, "likely" understate the violence that takes place within the prison walls.

The report is littered with examples from the Justice Department's investigation -- from a 34-person gang fight with make-shift weapons that included broomsticks, crutches, shanks, and a microwave, to a gang stabbing and beating of another inmate.

"Gangs are pervasive at Central Mississippi, South Mississippi, and Wilkinson, and they are a large contributor to the violence," the report says, which estimates that in some cases half of the population in the three facilities are affiliated with gangs. "The volume of contraband drugs in circulation at the three facilities leads to extreme, drug-induced behaviors that contribute to violence and fatal overdoses."

Staff are often times scared of the repercussions of getting involved in gang violence, or they are on the take.

The logo of the Mississippi Department of Corrections is shown on the shirt of a corrections officer, May 9, 2023, at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, Miss.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP, FILE

"Gross" understaffing also contributes to the issues at the prisons, including, in some cases, death, according to DOJ.

"MDOC’s poor staffing means officers fail to carry out basic security practices," the report says. "Correctional officers are rarely inside the housing units and instead sit in overlook towers where they cannot fully observe the people under their supervision. Security rounds and counts are missed, doors are left open, security posts are unfilled, and staff often fail to respond to incidents of violence or other harm until hours later. These conditions further contribute to the substantial risk of harm from violence at these facilities."

One person the Justice Department interviewed suspected that half of the staff were on the gangs' payroll.

"Staff at Central Mississippi described gangs as "a government within the facility." One of the Central Mississippi Internal Affairs (IA) coordinators told us that gangs have complete control of the prison dormitories," the report says. "Gangs control the dormitory bed assignments at Central Mississippi and even make some individuals sleep on the floor. A South Mississippi officer confirmed that two gangs in particular control the housing units, and that the gangs 'take care of business.'"

The Mississippi Department of Corrections said in a statement to ABC News they received the Justice Department's four-year report and said that the issue MDOC faces is no different than what corrections departments face around the country -- understaffing.

"Over the past four years, MDOC has worked tirelessly to increase staff through additional compensation, the development of career ladders, streamlining the hiring process, job fairs, and implementing special duty pay," MDOC said. "We're grateful for the often thankless work of the men and women of MDOC, and we look forward to continuing our efforts to recruit additional staff. While we disagree with the findings, we will work with the DOJ to identify possible resolutions to enhance inmate safety and continue ongoing efforts to improve operations at MDOC."

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke blasted the conditions at the prisons and said the conditions were "pervasive and deliberate."

"Our investigation uncovered chronic, systemic deficiencies that create and perpetuate violent and unsafe environments for people incarcerated at these three Mississippi facilities," she said. "The unconstitutional conditions in Mississippi’s prisons have existed for far too long, and we hope that this announcement marks a turning point towards implementing sound, evidence-based solutions to these entrenched problems. The Justice Department stands ready to enforce the dictates of the Constitution that protect the safety and human dignity of all people housed at state prison facilities. Our work makes clear that people do not abandon their civil and constitutional rights at the jailhouse door."

Sexual assault investigations at the prisons were also "inadequate," and the quality of the investigations was "poor," according to the report.

"At all three facilities, we found materially deficient sexual assault investigations," the report says. "Without adequately investigating allegations of sexual abuse, MDOC has been unable to determine the factors that allow abuse to occur and the corrective measures needed to address the problem."

The Justice Department says MDOC cooperated with the investigation.