Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
 / Updated 
By Jon Schuppe and Teresa Frenzel

Nicole Rathmann’s family expected to welcome her home this week from the Mississippi prison where she’d served six years on a drug conviction.

They buried her instead.

Rathmann, 33, died Aug. 23 at a hospital in Jackson, and her family says the state hasn’t given a full explanation of what happened. Prison officials told her father, Kent Rathmann, that Nicole, a mother who had struggled with meth addiction, died of an aneurysm. But a doctor at the hospital told Nicole’s father that the aneurysm was a result of the meth she used regularly while detained at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl.

“I know my daughter was no angel, but she was the responsibility of the state,” Kent Rathmann, who lives outside Chicago, told NBC News. “She was an addict. They didn’t help her.”

Nicole Rathmann is one of 16 Mississippi inmates between the ages of 24 and 75 who died while in state custody in August — a figure that has renewed concerns about the state’s treatment of its prisoners, including the medical care they receive.

Image: Nicole Rathmann 33, died Aug. 23 at a hospital in Jackson, Mississippi
Nicole Rathmann 33, died Aug. 23 at a hospital in Jackson, Mississippi.Image: Nicole Rathmann 33, died Aug. 23 at a hospital in Jackson, Mississippi / Courtesy family

The cause of death of the prisoners has not officially been released, though corrections officials said most died of “natural causes.” (One inmate was killed in a fight.) Corrections officials added, without releasing data, that the August deaths do not reflect a spike.

But in a state with one of the country’s highest incarceration rates, where a lack of funding for prisons has driven chronic problems like understaffing and overcrowding, prison reform advocates and relatives of the prisoners who died are not going to give officials the benefit of the doubt.

“I’ve been around this system long enough to see this as more than a bad month,” said Jody Owens, who has run the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi office since 2011. “To chalk these up to natural causes, no, I’m not willing to accept that.”

Facing mounting questions, Corrections Commissioner Pelicia E. Hall announced Friday afternoon, when 15 deaths had been disclosed, that she had asked the FBI and the Mississippi Department of Public Safety to assist in the investigation into the deaths.

“While we believe that most of the reported deaths during the month of August are from illnesses or natural causes, such as cancer and heart disease, based on available information, we are seeking assistance from others outside the department in the interest of transparency,” Hall said in a statement. “My administration is committed to ensuring that all individuals in the department’s care receive appropriate medical care.”

The FBI released a statement Friday evening saying it would “examine the facts” and look into whether inmates’ civil rights had been violated. “The FBI takes all allegations of civil rights violations seriously,” the statement said.

‘IT’S EATING ME UP’

Lucious Bolton was dying, and all his mother, Alma Dunning, wanted was talk to him.

On Aug. 4, a prison official called Dunning at her home in Houston to tell her that Bolton, who was suffering from late-stage stomach cancer while serving a 14-year sentence for burglary and gun possession, had been taken to an outside hospital for treatment. Four days earlier, he’d phoned her from the Mississippi State Penitentiary to tell her he was in terrible pain and needed help. Clearly, his condition had worsened. But prison officials wouldn’t tell her where he was, or let him call her, she said.

Days passed. Dunning grew frantic. She pleaded for a call, and prison officials refused, citing Bolton’s poor disciplinary record behind bars.

On Aug. 15, Dunning said, a chaplain called her and said she could come see her son, but that he probably wouldn’t survive the night. She began searching for flights. Twenty minutes later, the chaplain called again. Bolton, 29, was dead. He left behind a wife and a 10-year-old daughter.

“My main concern is to get this story out so they can’t do this to other people,” said Dunning, 51, adding, “It’s eating me up inside to not see my baby when he died.”

In response to questions about the August death toll, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, told reporters last Wednesday that there would be “complete transparency” and asked for patience from inmates’ relatives while state and federal agencies investigated. Official autopsies are expected to take months, because the state’s medical examiner has a deep backlog.

But grieving relatives are not inclined to be patient, and even with the promise of a broader investigation on Friday, transparency isn’t what the state has offered, critics say.

Hall, the corrections commissioner, said in a statement last Tuesday, when 12 deaths had been disclosed, that the number “is not out of line with the number of deaths in previous months.”

But the department did not respond to requests for data supporting that claim. The most recent data collected by the federal government shows that Mississippi averaged 51 inmate deaths per year from 2001 to 2014 — or an average of about four deaths per month. Mississippi’s annual prison death rate during that period was 324 per 100,000 prisoners, higher than the national rate of 255 over the same period.

The state’s medical examiner referred questions to the Department of Corrections, which did not return requests for comment. A spokesman for the governor said he would not comment further.

‘SOMEONE SHOULD BE RESPONSIBLE’

Some relatives of the dead inmates called the government’s response inadequate.

“When I called the prison, it was like they didn’t even know who I should talk to about the events of that night,” said Kent Rathmann, Nicole’s father. “The investigator told me the case was under investigation and there was only so much they could tell me. They told me she was found unresponsive in her cell, but what I want to know is: How long did it take? How long did it take to find her?”

Last Wednesday ─ one day after the parole date Nicole Rathmann had waited years to see ─ her family gathered in Choctaw County, Mississippi, for her funeral and burial. (Nicole’s parents have said that her last name was spelled Rathmann, despite official records and even a prison letter Nicole wrote this year that spelled her last name with one “n.”)

“Someone should be charged,” Kent Rathmann said Friday, after returning to Illinois with relatives. “Someone should be responsible for what happened.”

Sandra Bell, too, is frustrated with prison officials. Her brother, Albert McGee, 57, died Aug. 2 while serving a life sentence for murder at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution. A doctor told her that McGee, who’d been suffering complications from diabetes, was found in his cell unable to breathe and was rushed to a hospital, where he died.

But prison officials haven’t told Bell any more; the only communication regarding her brother’s death was through a prison-affiliated chaplain, she said.

“I would think if someone passed away in the facility that you run, there should be some type of official documentation or someone should contact you,” said Bell, 53, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “I don’t know what condition he was found in, who found him, what they did.”

A RED FLAG?

A cluster of deaths in one month could be a “red flag,” a sign of deeper problems in Mississippi’s beleaguered prison system, said David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. But he cautioned against jumping to conclusions until more is known about how the inmates died.

“Sometimes deaths in prison, just like deaths in the community, are natural and unavoidable, and sometimes they’re hastened or caused by dangerous conditions,” Fathi said.

He hopes investigators will look at the influence of extreme heat, a growing concern at prisons in the South as temperatures rise due to climate change.

Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law, said the state must be held responsible for the deaths, even if it’s determined they were due to natural causes.

“My experience representing Mississippi inmates tells me that these deaths were not ‘natural’ at all,” Johnson wrote in an email. “I believe they are the result of long-term malnourishment, lack of adequate health care services, and exposure to conditions that take a terrible toll on the body and mind.”

He added that Mississippi has no financial incentive to provide good medical care to prisoners. “Mississippi’s leaders pay no political price whatsoever for abhorrent conditions or inmate deaths,” he wrote.

‘THIS IS WHAT YOU GET’

Mississippi has been known for decades for its hard-line approach to criminal justice and is considered by prison reform advocates to be one of the toughest places in America to be a prisoner.

In recent years, the state has faced several lawsuits alleging inhumane treatment. One forced the closing of a unit at the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, where several violent deaths had occurred. Another led to the shuttering of a juvenile lockup. A third uncovered neglect and abuse at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility for mentally ill prisoners run by a private corporation.

The state has long struggled to provide enough resources to its prison system. Despite a series of changes adopted in 2014 to drive down the prison population, along with prison spending — including reducing sentences for drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses — Mississippi’s inmate population is now slightly higher than it was at the end of 2014. Its prisons remain chronically shorthanded; officials blame the low salaries for correctional officers. And Mississippi spends less on health care for inmates than many other states: A Pew Charitable Trusts study found that Mississippi spent $3,770 on health care per inmate in 2015, compared to a national median of $5,720.

“When you commit yourself to the incarceration piece, but don’t commit yourself to the adequate-funding piece, this is what you get,” Johnson said.

To reduce costs and overcrowding, Mississippi has turned to private companies to run some of its prisons. (The inmates who died in August were housed in three prisons run by the state and one run by a private company.)

Mississippi adopted another set of reforms and cost-saving measures this year, including provisions that would allow nonviolent offenders ─ like Nicole Rathmann, who was serving a 10-year sentence for selling meth ─ to earn earlier release.

‘I WANT SOME ANSWERS’

After her son’s death, Alma Dunning traveled from Houston to Moss Point, Mississippi, where she has a second home. That is where Bolton’s funeral was held, on Aug. 25.

“God allowed us to be together one more time,” she said.

But that hasn’t lessened her anger. No prison officials have called to explain how her son died, she said.

“I want some answers,” Dunning said. “I want them to tell the truth about what happened to my son.”

These are the Mississippi inmates who died in August:

Aug. 2: Albert McGee, 57, serving a life sentence for murder; South Mississippi Correctional Institution

Aug. 4: Charles R. MuCullough, 66, serving 10 years for burglary-larceny and assault; Mississippi State Penitentiary

Aug. 4: Willie Hollinghead, 36, serving 10 years for selling cocaine; South Mississippi Correctional Institution

Aug. 5: Robert Joseph, 38, serving three years for drug possession; Central Mississippi Correctional Facility

Aug. 5: Jack Glisson, 70, serving a life sentence for murder; South Mississippi Correctional Institution

Aug. 11: Ricky Martin, 58, serving 60 years for selling cocaine; Central Mississippi Correctional Facility

Aug. 15: Lucious Bolton, 29, serving 14 years for burglary and gun possession; Mississippi State Penitentiary

Aug. 18: James D. Myrick, 63, serving two years for fondling; Mississippi State Penitentiary

Aug. 20: Nija Syvallus Bonhomme, 24, killed during a fight with an inmate while serving 20 years for armed robbery and burglary; Wilkinson County Correctional Facility

Aug. 20: John Richard Luttrell, 67, serving 70 years for seven convictions, including two counts of attempted murder/homicide; Central Mississippi Correctional Facility

Aug. 23: Nicole Marie Rathmann, 33, serving 10 years for selling meth; Central Mississippi Correctional Facility

Aug. 27: Troy M. Pittman, 59, serving 30 years for sexual battery and sexual assault; Central Mississippi Correctional Facility

Aug. 27: Tony Springer Sr., 75, serving six years for unlawful touching of a child; South Mississippi Correctional Institution

Aug. 28: Curtis Hughes, 45, serving 25 years for meth sales and gun possession; Mississippi State Penitentiary

Aug. 30: Earl King Davis, 55, serving 20 years for manslaughter and aggravated assault; South Mississippi Correctional Institution

Aug. 31: Richard Beasley, 55, serving 28 years for burglary-larceny; Mississippi State Penitentiary