Following the deaths of 16 Mississippi prisoners last month, the Southern Poverty Law Center is calling upon the governor to reform the health care and reporting practices in the state prison system.

A letter from SPLC, delivered by hand to Gov. Phil Bryant’s office Thursday, says the deadly month of August “signals an enormous crisis” for Mississippi’s Department of Corrections – one which requires action.

“There is a systemic problem at MDOC,” reads the letter, signed by SPLC deputy legal director Lisa Graybill. “The high number of fatalities illustrates a lack of action to protect the health of incarcerated people under MDOC’s care, as well as a lack of transparent oversight following each individual’s death to properly determine the cause of death.”

The letter calls for Bryant to:

• Require MDOC to issue a public statement after the death of anyone in MDOC custody to ensure transparency

• Require MDOC’s “active participation” in mortality and after-death reviews conducted by health care contractors

• Require MDOC to mandate that Centurion, the state’s main healthcare contractor, and the appropriate facility produce a report following an in-custody death including circumstances of death, violations of company or state practices and policies that contributed to the circumstances of the death

• Require MDOC to produce a public report every quarter to document deaths in custody, causes and rates of deaths, and actions taken by MDOC “to mitigate the possible harm to people in MDOC custody”

Currently, the department does not publicly document in-custody deaths as they occur. At least two people have already died in state custody this month, according to MDOC spokesperson Grace Fisher, but no releases have been sent to the news media or uploaded to the department website.

Because MDOC does not have a policy to notify the public after someone in its care dies, the lack of transparency “may call into question the veracity of the true death rate at MDOC,” the letter reads.

August’s death rate was 3.2 times greater than the average monthly death rate from data available from 2010 to 2015, according to the letter.

Records of deaths dating back to January 2012 provided by MDOC to Mississippi Today yielded a similar calculation.

Mississippi prison deaths up 10 percent, records show

The department also has not made any autopsy results from last month public, according to SPLC.

Thursday’s letter comes amid mounting public scrutiny over the state’s limited response to the deaths. On Wednesday, a group of protesters outside the MDOC administrative building in downtown Jackson attempted to reach corrections commissioner Pelicia Hall with a list of questions, only to be turned away by security guards.

In her first interview regarding August’s deaths, Hall contested allegations that the number of people who died last month indicated ill intent or sinster actions, she told conservative political blog Y’all Politics Thursday.

Hall maintained that the majority of last month’s deaths were from natural causes, such as cancer, renal failure, cardiovascular disease or diabetes complications. She said that the department’s reporting practices last month, in which it began to upload press releases for each death on its website, and its call upon the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Public Safety to investigate were both gestures toward transparency.

Hall added that her department has a “really good working relationship” with the FBI, which is called in routinely to investigate civil rights violations, she said.

In response to the SPLC letter, MDOC released the following statement to Mississippi Today: “The Mississippi Department of Corrections reports deaths to state and federal entities, as required. Autopsy reports are exempt from disclosure under current law. We want to be as open and honest as we can. However, we have to balance respect for the families of the deceased as well. The department believes a majority of the deaths in August were from natural causes, based on information available. The Mississippi Department of Corrections takes seriously its constitutional mandate to provide health care to all individuals in its custody.”

The department also releases information about deaths in response to media inquiries, MDOC spokesperson Grace Fisher added.

Mississippi Today has also reached out to the governor’s office for comment.

SPLC, which is also a litigant in a class-action lawsuit against MDOC surrounding conditions at the privately-managed East Mississippi Correctional Facility that went to trial this spring, also alleges that the state’s health care contractor Centurion is not providing adequate care to prisoners for “serious, chronic, and emergent” medical conditions.

“Taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for prison health care provider Centurion, which is clearly not meeting its responsibility to provide basic health care to people in Mississippi prisons,” the letter continues.

Mississippi has contracted health care services to Centurion since 2015. Per its contract, the medical company must submit a mortality review and mortality survey report within 72 hours of an inmate’s death, and medical personnel must notify MDOC of any inmate death in their care within 24 hours.

MDOC spent nearly $67 million on health care costs in fiscal year 2018, according to its budget request for the upcoming year.

According to a 2017 Pew Charitable Trusts report, Mississippi spent $3,770 on health care per inmate in 2015, a seven percent decrease from 2010 and the tenth lowest of the 49 states surveyed.

The department is asking for $73 million in health care spending for the next budget, more than any other portion of its budget request.

Hall, the corrections commissioner, and other MDOC officials are slated to present their requests for a total agency budget of some $365 million at the state budget hearings on Sept. 17.

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.