Five inmates killed in past week in violence-plagued Mississippi prisons

"We've been predicting this and expecting this with widespread violence in facilities that are in many instances out of control," one legal expert said.
Image: Mississippi State Penitentiary
Traffic moves past the front of the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Miss., on May 19, 2010.Rogelio V. Solis / AP file

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By Erik Ortiz

A fifth inmate was killed early Friday at one of Mississippi's state prisons, the latest burst of violence amid a series of fatal prisoner stabbings and attacks that have roiled the state prison system over the past week.

Denorris Howell, 36, sustained a neck injury in a fatal attack following an altercation with his cellmate, Sunflower County Coroner Heather Burton said. Howell had been serving a 17-year sentence for manslaughter. The condition of his cellmate was not immediately known.

Howell's death is the third at Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman this week and the fifth to occur at a state prison since Sunday, when a 40-year-old inmate's killing prompted a statewide lockdown of facilities, which is continuing through the weekend.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections did not immediately return a request for comment about the incident at Mississippi State Penitentiary, the state's only maximum-security prison for men and home to more than 3,500 inmate beds.

Experts say the string of deaths underscores the long-festering problems within Mississippi's prison system, which has one of the nation's highest incarceration rates and has been scrutinized over questionable inmate fatalities.

"Not to be dismissive of the seriousness of these events, but nobody should be surprised about what we're seeing," said Cliff Johnson, the director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. "We've been predicting this and expecting this with widespread violence in facilities that are in many instances out of control."

Johnson, who has clients in prison, pointed to multiple factors that have generally allowed the assaults behind bars to persist.

A 2014 investigation by The Clarion Ledger found that "gangs rule" and despite a "zero tolerance" by corrections officials, inmates described how "gang members stab people down, and nothing happens to them."

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At the time, then-state Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps disagreed that gangs were powerful. (Epps resigned that same year amid a federal investigation, and is now serving nearly 20 years in prison for bribery while commissioner.)

Burton said Friday the two other inmate deaths at Mississippi State Penitentiary — one that occurred Wednesday after midnight and a separate incident on Thursday — involved the victims being stabbed multiple times during gang-related riots.

The Clarion Ledger cited family members with loved ones in state prisons who say they remain in fear of "warring" gangs.

State prison officials have not commented on what led to these latest deaths, and in an earlier statement said, "reporting allegations is irresponsible and could further jeopardize the safety of officers, inmates, and the public."

But whether or not all of the inmate deaths are directly tied to gangs, there remains a greater concern for how guards use inmates to exert control over other inmates, which is exacerbated by the under-funding of staffing levels and keeping prisoners incarcerated for long periods.

"At this time in Mississippi, gangs have a substantial amount of influence on our prisons statewide," Johnson said.

Getting to the heart of prison violence, however, by addressing not simply the issue of gangs but the larger systemic problems within the criminal justice system remains tricky in Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the nation.

For instance, Johnson said, officials might think that hiring more corrections officers and staff would be the reasonable answer. But instead, he said, looking at ways to cut down on over-incarceration, through allowing more inmates to be eligible for parole or the easing of harsh sentencing guidelines, could be better solutions.

"But there's a historical resistance to change here," Johnson said. "A lot of things we do here is because it's the way we've always done them."

Meanwhile, changes are already slated for the Department of Corrections as Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall is planning to step down this month when Gov.-elect Tate Reeves, a Republican, takes office. Reeves has yet to announce who will succeed Hall.

Her tenure has been marked by questions surrounding how 16 inmates died in separate incidents in August 2018 while in state custody. Hall called on the FBI and the Mississippi Department of Public Safety to assist in the investigation into the deaths, NBC News reported.

"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.

The state's prisons have also been the subject of several lawsuits over the years, and one involving the American Civil Liberties Union led to the shuttering in 2010 of a unit at Mississippi State Penitentiary where the nonprofit organization alleged "inhumane conditions and a lack of medical and mental health care."

This recent wave of deaths comes as a U.S. district judge ruled this week that there's no evidence that current conditions at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Meridian are violating prisoner rights. Prisoners said in a 2013 complaint that they were subject to violence, forced into long stretches of solitary confinement and denied health care, among other alleged abuses.

Whomever the incoming governor taps as corrections commissioner will have a challenging road ahead, Johnson said.

"It's a very difficult job," he added, "and that new person is going to need to take some time on the front end to get their arms around all the different contributing factors that has led to this mess."