The federal courthouse in Jackson

For the second time in less than three years, the state of Mississippi is in federal court defending a lawsuit against one of its privately run prisons.

The trial begins Monday in the case of Dockery v. Hall about conditions at East Mississippi Correctional Facility. The 1,500-bed facility in Meridian is designated to house the most severely mentally ill prisoners in the state; approximately 80 percent of the prisoners there have been diagnosed with a mental illness.

The lawsuit was filed in May 2013 after a two-year investigation by civil-liberty advocacy groups. The case later was granted class-action status with more than 1,100 members.

The lawsuit alleges that the Mississippi Department of Corrections “has deliberately ignored or failed to remediate the life-threatening conditions that persist” at the prison, which is operated by a Centerville, Utah-based company — Management & Training Corp., the third largest private corrections firm in the United States. Named as a defendant is Pelicia Hall, appointed commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections in March after serving as interim commissioner for two months.

“Plaintiffs face a substantial risk of serious harm — including death — living in an extremely dangerous prison environment that is marked by understaffing and staff abdication of even minimal security functions, significant gang control, malfunctioning cell door locking mechanisms, and prevalently available weapons,” attorneys for the prisoners bringing the suit wrote in the original complaint.

Jody Owens II, managing attorney of the Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center

Jody Owens, managing attorney for the Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center, said the conditions that existed in the prison when his organization first filed the lawsuit, with the American Civil Liberties Union and private law firms, persist today.

“Prisons are large facilities and, particularly, private prisons have a pattern and practice of understaffing their prisons,” Owens said on a recent conference call with reporters.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections declined to comment for this story, saying the agency would present its case in court.

Issa Arnita,  a spokesman for the private prison company — which is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit although its employees will testify during the trial — said he could not talk about specific allegations because of the ongoing court case.

“We can say — unequivocally — that the East Mississippi Correctional Facility is safe, secure, clean, and well run. From the warden on down, our staff are trained to treat the men in our care with dignity and respect. Our mission is to help these men make choices in prison and after they’re released that will lead to a new and successful life in society,” Arnita said in an emailed statement.

The statement also included information about staffing and security improvements made at East Mississippi Correctional Facility since 2012 such as installing a full-body scanner, motion sensors and upgraded fencing. In addition, the company has enhanced training for all staff members and added additional staff in some areas.

Pelicia Hall, in her role as commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, is named as a defendant in the case.

Attorneys paint a picture of life in the prison that is much more grim.

Owens points to four deaths that have occurred at the prison since the beginning of 2018, two of which he says were caused by overdose of a synthetic marijuana called spice and one because a prisoner choked in the dining hall.

“They do not have enough officers (and) people are literally selling their food to avoid fights,” he said.

Eric Balaban, senior staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project, said even though the prison has a large population of seriously mentally ill prisoners “the most basic elements of a mental health care system are absent.”

“As a result, very seriously mentally ill men who are warehoused at this facility unnecessarily suffer. They grow more ill, they grow more psychotic, they grow more isolated,” Balaban said.

Mississippi contracts with Centurion of Mississippi LLC, a division of St. Louis-based Centene Corp., to provide medical services at all of its facilities. The three-year contract is worth $150 million, state records show.

Erin Monju, with Washington-D.C. based law firm Covington & Burling, noted that three different companies have provided medical services at the prison since 2011, all of which she said have been “grossly inadequate”

“It is MDOC’s obligation to ensure that state  prisoners receive adequate health care. It is also MDOC’s responsibility to ensure that their contractors abide by the contract paid for and abide by the terms of the contract,” she said.

“These contractors have received multi-million dollar contract from Mississippi but Mississippi isn’t receiving the services it paid for,” Monju added. “No one at MDOC is holding these contractors to account.”

The lawsuit comes three years after prisoner-rights attorneys argued in federal court to leave in place a settlement at Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in Leake County, also run by Management & Training Corp.

After several days of hearings, the judge in that case ordered the prison to remain under federal consent decree. In 2016, Mississippi shuttered the facility as a prison but announced that it would explore other uses, including possibly to house mentally ill prisoners.

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Ryan L. Nave, a native of University City, Mo., served as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief from May 2018 until April 2020. Ryan began his career with Mississippi Today February 2016 as an original member of the editorial team. He became news editor August 2016. Ryan has a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked for Illinois Times and served as news editor for the Jackson Free Press.