On Monday, attorneys for inmates at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility opened arguments in a class-action suit alleging barbaric conditions afflicting over a thousand prisoners.
Both sides, according to the Clarion Ledger, presented their cases before U.S. District Judge William Barbour, Jr., on Monday. The juryless trial – expected to last up to six weeks – stems from a 2013 filing by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, the plaintiffs say the privately-run East Mississippi Correctional Facility is on the verge of failure. Mental and medical care, they claim, are substandard, refused even in cases of dire need. Violence is commonplace and uncontrolled.
Even meals, attorneys argue, don’t provide proper nutrition.
Similar to other suits targeting privately-run prisons, inmates described being locked in solitary confinement for long periods of time, often over trivial infractions.
Blame, says lawyer Elissa Johnson, ultimately lies with the Mississippi Department of Corrections, which has a duty to ensure its contractors fulfill their obligations in caring for prisoners. An estimated 80% of the EMCF’s inmate population is either mentally handicapped or otherwise in need of psychiatric resources.
“It is a bedrock principle,” said Johnson on Monday, “that states must provide constitutionally adequate care.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s news brief on the suit describes a poorly-equipped and negligently staffed facility at East Mississippi – cells without working lights, toilets that won’t flush. Too few guards to run the prison, letting gangs maintain an authority just outside the system’s official hierarchy.
Four people, claims the SPLC, died in the first two months of 2018 alone.
In one instance, dating back to 2013, a prison counselor observed a man “trying to cut himself with a small dull object and had a long rope wrapped around his neck.” Dr. Marc F. Stern, board-certified psychiatrist, says the case report shows reckless indifference on the part of EMCF staff.
Rather than placing the suicidal man under watch – or providing any semblance of treatment – he was declared mentally fit and released back to the general population. Nobody checked or inquired after his well-being for another nine days.
He was found dead in his cell.
On Monday, state attorneys were purportedly baffled, wondering aloud how anyone could term East Mississippi Correctional facilities as ‘unconstitutional.’
“It’s hard to see how reasonable people can look at the same facility and come to such opposite conclusions,” said William Siler, lawyer for the state.
Siler and his colleagues said the Department of Corrections, along with Utah-based contractor Management and Training Corp., had made improvements since the suit’s filing. They insisted that, while every prison has its problems, inmates have done more to detract from their own quality of life than guards.
“What you see is them trying to say we need to protect inmates from themselves,” said Siler, who noted that broken lightbulbs and unrepaired showers were often the result of vandalism.
Another state lawyer, Michael Bentley, urged the court to focus on the prison’s current state rather than its conditions in years past. Bentley also charged the plaintiffs with being able to substantiate more than the ‘isolated horror story,’ noting that occasional indifference doesn’t show a facility-wide intent to deny inmates proper care or ignore complaints.
“You can’t hide deliberate indifference in a facility-wide class-action,” said Bentley. “You can’t clean it up on a day, or a week, or a month.”