On Monday, attorneys presented their closing arguments in a case pitting prisoners against the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
Filed in 2013, the five-week trial brings to a close Dockery, et. al. v. Hall, et. al., a class action suit alleging barbaric living conditions at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Meridian, Mississippi. Although a verdict’s yet to be returned, inmate advocates have already begun publishing transcripts from the case’s last day.
“The Mississippi Department of Corrections allows this prison to fail at even the most fundamental tasks: keeping prisoners safe and secure, treating mental illnesses, providing basic medical treatment, and providing a sanitary environment,” said Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Jody Owens. “The result is a place so dangerous and violent that it shocks corrections experts, yet the department keeps handing taxpayer money to private companies to run the prison and its services, rewarding them year after year for doing a horrific job.”
Similar to other suits targeting for-profit prisons, the prisoners and their advocates claim contractor Management & Training Corporation (MTC) is neglecting inmates to buffer profit margins. Expert witnesses testifying for the plaintiffs say that MTC, along with for-profit healthcare contractor Centurion, did a dismal job fulfilling their obligations to the well-being of the detained.
“The Mississippi Department of Corrections has a cruel way of handling prisoners with mental illnesses. It funnels them into the Eastern Mississippi Correctional Facility, and then systematically neglects their needs for treatment,” said senior ACLU staff attorney Eric Balaban. “When they become unstable due to lack of treatment, the prison punishes them with solitary confinement, which typically makes mental illness worse. Yet the state keeps writing checks to Centurion for this so-called ‘care.’”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, some 80% of the prisoners at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility suffer from mental illness and psychological handicaps.
On top of poor to nonexistent healthcare, attorneys for the inmates claim that meals didn’t even provide the prisoners with proper nutrition.
“It’s a bedrock principle,” said attorney Elissa Johnson in March, “that states must provide constitutionally adequate care.”
Nevertheless, attorneys for the State of Mississippi have maintained that its officers and contractors did no wrong. One lawyer wondered aloud how anyone could possibly accuse the facility’s administrators of running an “unconstitutional” establishment.
“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 suggested that any reduction in quality of living was caused by the inmate vandalism and neglect, noting how prisoners routinely break lightbulbs and flood showers.
“What you see,” said Siler last month, “is them trying to say we need to protect inmates from themselves.”
But lawyers for the SPLC and its co-counsel on the case claim that aggravating East Mississippi’s mentally ill inmates does nothing but ill-prepare them for a life outside the barbed wire. Litigation associate Erin Monju of Covington & Burling LLP said the DoC is “causing suffering far beyond the prisoners’ sentences,” punishing entire communities and families alike.