Two rappers and an attorney are challenging the MDOC over five inmates’ recent deaths.
Jay-Z is leading a lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections and the head of its state penitentiary.
According to NBC News, Jay-Z filed the complaint on behalf of 29 inmates, all of whom say state officials have done nothing to stop a wave of rioting and violence in Mississippi’s biggest prison. At least five men have died in the past two weeks, with no sign of relief on the horizon.
“Plaintiffs’ lives are in peril,” the suit alleges. “Individuals held in Mississippi’s prisons are dying because Mississippi has failed to fund its prisons, resulting in prisons where violence reigns because prisons are understaffed. In the past two weeks alone, five men incarcerated have died as a result of prison violence.”
“These deaths are a direct result of Mississippi’s utter disregard for the people it has incarcerated and their constitutional rights,” states the lawsuit. NBC News notes that the suit was officially submitted by Jay-Z’s lawyer, Alex Spiro. It names as defendants DOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall and Mississippi State Penitentiary Superintendent Marshall Turner.
Jay-Z, adds the Clarion Ledger, filed the lawsuit alongside fellow rapper Yo Gotti.
“We cannot treat people this way, and it’s time to do something about it,” Spiro told NBC in a statement.
An older article, published by NBC at the beginning of January, notes that Mississippi’s prison system has long faced criticism. Not only does the southern state have one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, but it has a history of turning a blind eye to “questionable” fatalities, too.
“Not to be dismissive of the seriousness of these events, but nobody should be surprised about what we’re seeing,” Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi Law School, told NBC. “We’ve been predicting this and expecting this with widespread violence in facilities that are in many instances out of control.”
The Clarion Ledger previously reported that, in some of Mississippi’s most notorious prisons, “gangs rule” despite the DOC’s “zero tolerance” approach to violence.
“Gang members stab people down,” wrote the Ledger, “and nothing happens to them.”
Violence, though, isn’t the only threat to prisoners’ well-being. They’re also made to “live in squalor, endangering their physical and mental health.”
“In [Mississippi State Penitentiary], the units are subject to flooding,” the suit says. “Black mold festers. Rats and mice infest the prison. Units lack running water and electricity for days at a time.”
The Mississippi Department of Corrections maintains whatever problems it’s facing are gang-related. In a recent press release, the MDOC said it needs more funding to hire additional corrections officers.
“The agency is experiencing critical understaffing at its three state prisons and needs at least 1,000 more officers for its current facilities,” the statement said. “The number of officers has continued to dwindle as the agency’s pay has not kept pace with industry salaries and other professions.”
Instead of hiring more staff, Johnson said the agency should consider alternatives like combating over-incarceration and easing harsh sentencing guidelines.
“There’s a historical resistance to change here,” he said. “A lot of things we do here is because it’s the way we’ve always done them.”
For their part, Spiro and Jay-Z say they sued to effect change. Spiro, who’d earlier written to the governor of Mississippi, told the Ledger that whatever problems the state’s prisons face are reflective of broader social inequities.
“I just think it’s troubling where you have people, predominately African-American, who are locked inside cages where they don’t have a voice to be heard and are essentially forgotten,” Spiro said. “It strikes us that there has to be a spotlight on this, otherwise we might not even be scratching the surface of the horror going on inside these prisons.”