A string of deaths in Mississippi prisons last month prompted public scrutiny, made national headlines and raised questions about conditions in state correctional facilities as well as transparency at the Department of Corrections.

What is certain is that more people died in Mississippi prisons in August than in any other month over the last six years, records provided by the state’s Department of Corrections show.

But as the death toll continued to rise, what remained murky was whether the rate was high, low or on par with previous months and why people were dying.

Three days before August came to a close, the department put out a statement by its commissioner, Pelicia Hall: “The number of deaths the department is reporting is not out of line with the number of deaths in previous months.”

Mississippi Today submitted a public records request for a complete list of people who died in MDOC custody this year as well as the cause of death in each case. Here is what we found:

How many people have died in Mississippi prisons this year?

A total of 57 people died in state custody between January and August of this year. By this time last year, 52 prisoners had died in 2017, approximately 10 percent fewer. The department has seen two prisoner deaths in the month of September so far, according to MDOC spokesperson Grace Fisher.

The 16 deaths were an unusual spike compared to other summer months. Just the month before, in July, two inmates died; in June, the department recorded one death.

Nicole Rathman was set to go home from prison. She died five days before seeing freedom

However, overall, in-custody deaths tend to vary from month to month. In some months, the department recorded as few as one or two deaths and, in others, as many as 11 or 12. On average, about five people have died each month in state custody since 2012, based on data obtained by Mississippi Today.

In the last two years, about half of Mississippi’s in-custody deaths have occurred within the state’s three main prisons: Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville.

A previous Mississippi Today analysis showed that last year, the mortality rate at Parchman, the state’s largest prison, actually exceeded that of the state’s general population.

Mississippi’s average in-custody mortality rate between 2001 and 2014 ranked sixth overall in the country, per most recent Bureau of Justice statistics. That rate includes federal prisoners held in each state.

What were the causes of death?

Officials including Hall have said that the majority of last month’s deaths were from natural causes such as cancer.

Records provided by MDOC don’t state specific causes of death. Instead, the information lists “natural” as the manner of death for 13 of last month’s fatalities. Previous data provided by the department concerning in-custody deaths provided more detailed causes of deaths between 2012 and 2017. Marshall Goff, a lawyer for the agency, said providing that data to Mississippi Today was an “oversight.”

For two of the 16 deaths in August, the manner of death was listed as “undetermined,” meaning that the Department of Corrections is still waiting for more information from the State Medical Examiner’s Office and/or there are pending investigations, Goff said.

The short-staffed, underfunded medical examiner’s office must also process each case. That means official autopsy results could be delayed for months, officials have said.

Family members of both inmates whose causes of death are “undetermined,” Willie Hollinghead and Nicole Rathman, have told Mississippi Today that they’d received few clear answers from prison and medical officials.

Another inmate, Nija Bonhomme, died in a fight with his cellmate at the privately operated Wilkinson County Correctional Facility. Bonhomme was the only inmate from one of the state’s private prisons, run by the company MTC, to die last month. The manner of his death was listed as homicide.

So far this year, the state has recorded three homicides and two suicides in its prisons. The vast majority of prison deaths in 2018 are from natural causes, department data show, but 11 of those cases — including two dating back to January — are still undetermined.

Prisoners who have died this year ranged in age from 24 to 92. Four of the the 57 people whose deaths the state has reported through this August were women.

Who’s looking into the deaths?

State officials, including Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and chairs of both the state House and Senate corrections committees, have all commented on last month’s deaths. Bryant has noted that state and federal agencies are looking into any potential wrongdoing.

This week, in an interview with WLOX-TV, Bryant suggested the investigation might reveal wrongdoing occurred.

“We think there maybe one or two in which a correctional officer didn’t do the right thing,” he told the station. “Unfortunately, that happens from time to time in life and every profession.”

Hall, the corrections commissioner, has called upon both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the state’s Department of Public Safety to conduct investigations for the sake of transparency.

But it’s unclear how long such an investigation might last or repercussions might result from them. The Department of Public Safety has not yet commented on its involvement with any investigation.

A statement released by the FBI last week said that the agency would be in contact with MDOC “to examine the facts.”

“The FBI takes all allegations of civil rights violations seriously,” the statement reads. An FBI spokesperson declined to elaborate on the agency’s investigation.

What’s next for Mississippi’s prison system?

Corrections commissioner Pelicia Hall and other top prisons officials are scheduled to appear at a state budget hearing on September 17, where they will present requests for an agency budget totaling some $365 million.

$73 million of that request is geared toward healthcare spending. The state has ranked low on healthcare spending for prisoners in the past, and a similar spate of MDOC prisoner deaths in the spring of 2017 drew concerns over whether the department had adequate funding to address the needs of its nearly 20,000 prisoners.

What do you want to know about prison deaths and conditions in Mississippi? Ask questions here and a Mississippi Today reporter will get back to you. Read the rest of Mississippi Today’s coverage on last month’s spike in prison deaths here.

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Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.