Prisoner Advocates Sue Mississippi’s Junk Prison System for COVID Protections

With overcrowded units, dated prison facilities, obscure cleaning methods and a shortage of COVID-19 tests, there is no reason to assume the virus isn’t running unchecked through Mississippi’s prisons, say attorneys. For this reason, a host of organizations are calling on the state to finally update two of its biggest prisons to reflect post-COVID threats.

“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mississippi’s prisons were already in a state of crisis; men and women die in Mississippi prisons at a rate that far exceeds the national average,” said Vangela M. Wade, president and CEO of Mississippi Center for Justice, who announced the suit this month. “Safely reducing the number of incarcerated people is the best way to prevent an unnecessary deadly outbreak. But in the meantime, minimal protective practices must be immediately implemented.”

The Mississippi Center for Justice joined the ACLU of Mississippi, Hogan Lovells law firm and Texas attorney Mark Whitburn in a class action lawsuit against Mississippi’s two largest prisons for failing to prepare for the onslaught of the deadly coronavirus infection sweeping the nation. The group claims the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF) and the South Mississippi Correctional Institution (SMCI) have not applied even minimum prevention practices required to reduce transmission of the novel disease. According to them, the prisons aren’t working to identify the progress or the infection rate of the virus.

The situation in Mississippi prisons is further complicated by the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ reliance upon for-profit prison companies that earn their money by cutting corners and stuffing as many occupants into a prison as possible, while hiring a minimum of low-trained staff. That, and a slew of budget issues have contributed to a rash of deadly prison riots and spotty prisoner management that prompted a Department of Justice investigation into state prisons this year. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves finally acknowledged the problem this year and announced a flurry of prison reforms, eight years after overseeing the same deteriorating prison industry as lieutenant governor.

“MDOC prisons like CMCF and SMCI operate at nearly double their staffed capacity, so a single guard may be responsible for supervising hundreds of individuals across one or two buildings,” said Paloma Wu, deputy director of impact litigation at MCJ. “This means there is often nobody to tell if you feel sick, and right now, there are people inside who have run out of soap and can’t get cleaning supplies. The unnecessary risk of harm to our community members in custody is unacceptable.”

The Mississippi Department of Corrections, lawyers claim, has not implemented the most basic pandemic response reactions such as regular cleaning and use of disinfectant in occupied cells. The list of complaints cited by the lawsuit sounds a lot like the kind of thing that could be fixed by calling in somebody’s mom.

Mississippi has one of the highest prison populations among democracies, with an incarceration rate of 1,039 per 100,000 individuals. In a state where prisons are crammed to the brim, prisons are failing to isolate and test residents, and to convey infection prevention info and tactics.

This is a problem for inmates with compromised immunities, like CMFC inmate Daniel Hatten. Hatten, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, was a victim in one of the more recent prison riots, having been stabbed in the eye in February. His wound healed improperly, causing double vision and pain, but Hatten also suffers from high blood pressure and ulcers, and is a strong candidate for the kind of coronavirus infection that kills people in a healthy home environment, as opposed to wasting away in a filthy prison.

Another lawsuit plaintiff is Douglas Triplett, an inmate at SMCI. Triplett is 56-years-old, which increases his chances of suffering fatal symptoms of COVID-19. Add to that Triplett’s HIV-positive status and the resulting immunodeficiencies, and you’ve basically got a countdown on somebody’s life. Triplett, according to the lawsuit, already suffers from loss of appetite, stomach pain and weakness.

Bob Henderson, another SMCI inmate and a plaintiff in the suit, suffers from neurofibromatosis and has numerous, painful tumors along his spine and nervous system. The disease also causes problems with his immune system by affecting his white blood cells. Needless to say, Henderson does not receive regular MRIs and treatment for his disease while incarcerated, according to lawyers. Now, imagine throwing a disease in the mix that potentially attacks not only the lungs but internal organs such as the kidneys.

Then, there’s SMCI inmate Erik Lewis, who suffers from chronic asthma, which appears to severely aggravate COVID infections, according to reports.

The suit expectsto force the correctional facilities to adhere by standards outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is a list of changes that sound like common sense to most people. Included requirements are for guards and inmates to receive adequate training on preventing the spread of the coronavirusand proper steps for dealing with those who’ve contracted it, including a new, reliable system for reporting personal symptoms and access to reliable virus testing. The group is also looking to make access to masks and PPE gear mandatory and to impose more frequent prison-wide cleanings.

Inmates need access to adequate soap and sanitizer, they claim, and the assurance that they can maintain six feet of space between themselves and other incarcerated people. Included among the requirements is the creation of a system to anonymously report guards who are ducking safety procedures and the assignment of an independent compliance representative to monitor prisons to make sure staff are following rules.

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