Jay-Z goes to bat for Mississippi prisoners and files federal lawsuit

The rap mogul had warned Mississippi officials he was "prepared to pursue all potential avenues."
Criminal Justice Reform Organization Launch
Shawn 'Jay-Z' Carter attends the Criminal Justice Reform Organization Launch on Jan. 23, 2019, in New York.Shareif Ziyadat / Getty Images file

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By Corky Siemaszko

Rap mogul Jay-Z sued the head of the Mississippi Department of Corrections and the warden of the state penitentiary Tuesday on behalf of 29 prisoners who say the two officials have done nothing to stop the violence that has left five inmates dead in the past two weeks.

“These deaths are a direct result of Mississippi’s utter disregard for the people it has incarcerated and their constitutional rights,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed by Jay-Z’s lawyer Alex Spiro at the U.S. District Court in Greenville, Mississippi.

It names as defendants DOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall and Mississippi State Penitentiary Superintendent Marshall Turner.

“We cannot treat people this way and it’s time to do something about it,” Spiro of the Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP law firm, said in a statement to NBC News.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections replied to an NBC News request for comment by saying it does not discuss pending litigation.

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The lawsuit comes on the heels of a letter dated Jan. 9 that Spiro sent to Hall and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant on behalf of Jay-Z and hip-hop artist Yo Gotti (Mario Mims) protesting the “inhumane conditions in prisons operated by the Mississippi Department of Corrections.”

Spiro said they were “prepared to pursue all potential avenues to obtain relief for the people living in Mississippi’s prisons and their families.”

“This unthinkable spate of deaths is the culmination of years of severe understaffing and neglect at Mississippi’s prisons,” Spiro’s letter reads. “As Mississippi has incarcerated increasing numbers of people, it has dramatically reduced its funding of prisons. As a result, prison conditions fail to meet even the most basic human rights.”

“People are forced to live in squalor, with rats that crawl over them as they sleep on the floor, having been denied even a mattress for a cot,” the letter said.

Spiro closed with a warning: “Roc Nation and its philanthropic arm, Team Roc, demand that Mississippi take immediate steps to remedy this intolerable situation.”

Roc Nation is the entertainment agency that Jay-Z, aka Shawn Carter, founded in 2008.

The lawsuit names three prison inmates who were killed this year at the state penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi.

“Walter Gates, an inmate of Unit 29E at Parchman was stabbed multiple times the night of New Year’s Eve, and pronounced dead just after midnight,” the suit states. “Roosevelt Holliman was stabbed to death in a fight the next day. And Denorris Howell, an inmate of Unit 291 at Parchman was stabbed multiple times and pronounced dead the day after that.”

Violence behind bars has been a long-festering problem in the Mississippi prison system. A 2014 investigation by The Clarion Ledger found that “gangs rule” the prisons and while corrections officials insist there is “zero tolerance” for violence, it continues unabated.