Horrors in Mississippi

It’s like a prison horror-story competition, and Mississippi is in the running with the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF) near Meridian. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit today because of “barbaric” conditions. This isn’t the first time the ACLU has sued over conditions in a Mississippi prison – in 2002 it was inhumane treatment at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, and in 2010 it was abuses at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility. EMCF is, however, an exceptionally egregious case. Gabriel B. Eber, staff counsel for the ACLU’s National Prison Project said ECMF “is the worst I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been in prisons all around the country.”

The prison is run by Management and Training Corp., a company from Utah, but the Mississippi Department of Corrections is named as the defendant. EMCF is a “special needs” prison, housing many of the state’s most severely mentally ill inmates. Instead of providing the care they need, the prison has left these people in a horrifying state of neglect. . Inmates are underfed; all report significant weight loss, from 10 to 60 pounds, and appear almost emaciated. Beatings, stabbings, and rapes are rampant, and prisoners have to resort to lighting fires in their cells to get guards’ attention. Prisoners are held in solitary for months and sometimes years.

Broken toilets force inmates to use trays or plastic bags instead, which they toss through the cell bars to get rid of. A severe rodent infestation is apparent from mice crawling out of the broken toilets and rats crawling over the men’s beds at night. Some make leashes for the rats and sell them to the more severely mentally ill inmates as pets.

And what about the mentally ill? Surely a prison specifically designated for them provides psychological care? Well, kind of. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who studied the prison for the ACLU cited “poor mental health programs” and “an overburdened prison psychiatrist” amongst its problems. At one time there was a full-time psychiatrist on staff, but when the state hired a new for-profit contractor, Health Assurance, the hours dropped to two days per week. Some inmates who need treatment try to avoid the psychiatrist for fear of being injected with strong drugs that will make them vulnerable to attack, while others find their diagnoses downgraded and are taken off of medications they actually need.

Physical illnesses don’t find treatment any more easily. The lawsuit cites the case of one inmate whose pleas for help were ignored until one of his testicles swelled to the size of a softball in June 2012 – by the time he received an ultrasound, testicular cancer had spread to his abdomen. In another instance a 27 year old man went blind after he was denied treatment for his glaucoma between 2011 and 2013. Yet another prisoner had to have part of his finger amputated when he developed gangrene after being stabbed.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections, which ultimately bears responsibility, has known about these problems for years but, as always seems to be the case, nothing happens until a court is involved. Should it really require a court-order to treat human beings humanely? To those in charge of the prisons it’s as if there are no people, only dollar signs.

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