Deaths were up threefold last year at private East Mississippi prison where inmate died last week

Share on LinkedIn More

Mississippi Today

East Mississippi Correctional Facility involved in federal lawsuit over conditions at the facility.  

Prison officials have identified the man who died alone in his cell last week at a privately run prison near Meridian that’s facing a class action lawsuit over conditions and care at the facility.

Walter L. Hodge, 38, of Edwards was found unresponsive in his cell at Unit 5B at East Mississippi Correctional Facility on Jan. 17, Mississippi Department of Corrections spokesperson Grace Fisher confirmed Tuesday. Fisher said the cause and the manner of death are pending an autopsy report from the state medical examiner’s office.

Lauderdale County coroner Clayton Cobbler told Mississippi Today on Monday that Hodge had died by hanging using a bedsheet. “He was alone in his cell,” Cobbler said.

Hodge’s is the first death publicly reported by the Department of Corrections at the facility this year. Last year, at least six people died in the East Mississippi facility, triple the average number of deaths in the six years prior.

An expert report recently submitted on behalf of plaintiffs in the ongoing federal lawsuit contesting conditions within East Mississippi Correctional Facility, claims that errors committed under the prison’s health care system possibly caused or contributed to the six deaths.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections “remains derelict in its oversight of health care at EMCF,” wrote Marc F. Stern, a correctional health care consultant for the plaintiffs — prisoners in the class-action suit represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and private firms.

“[T]here are now many new, serious problems that I did not observe previously,” Stern wrote, citing lack of access to urgent and non-urgent care, failure to provide medications to patients by nurses, failure to conduct meaningful welfare checks on residents placed in isolation cells, and dangerous facility conditions including persistent fires and lighting fixtures with exposed wires.

At least two of the six deaths reviewed were likely preventable, Stern wrote.

Prisoners in the lawsuit against the Department of Corrections are alleging that conditions in the facility are unconstitutional.

East Mississippi Correctional Facility currently houses over 1,200 men, most of whom have a mental health diagnosis. The prison is run by private operator Management and Training Corp.

Following a jury trial last spring, U.S. District Judge William Barbour requested experts from both parties to review medical care and staffing at the prison in light of Barbour’s own tour of the facility and arguments made by the state that conditions had improved.

Barbour, who has handed over several of the cases on his docket since his retirement, remains on the bench for the EMCF class-action lawsuit.

Expert reports submitted by plaintiffs last fall maintain that systemic issues identified over the course of the suit have not improved. The reports state that the facility continues to lack adequate staffing and secure supervision of prisoners, and that prisoners still lack access to medical care through contractor Centurion’s failure to follow policies and procedures, Management and Training Corp officers’ failure to escort them to appointments and repeated lockdowns that cause medical appointments to be cancelled.

In its own expert reports, the state disputed these claims, noting changes to the facility and its management including an increase in correctional officers, the hiring of additional case managers and medical staff, mandatory training for nursing staff, increased compliance in administering medicine to patients.

The facility’s medical director, Patrick Arnold, wrote in his report that within three days of each inmate death in 2018, he reviewed medical records to conduct a mortality and morbidity review.

“At that time, it was my opinion that there was not any different treatment or care that could have been provided to each of the patients that would have prevented their deaths,” Arnold wrote. “Since that time, I have received either the toxicology report or the coroner’s report for each case and my opinions have not changed.”

An average of two people at the facility died each year between 2012 and 2017, according to data obtained by Mississippi Today via public records requests.

The SPLC is also litigating conditions for mentally ill inmates in Alabama prisons in federal court, where it recently filed an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order against that state’s Department of Corrections following a series of in-custody suicides.

At the time of his death, Hodge was nearly two decades into a life sentence for murder, which a jury found him guilty of in 2001; he appealed the case in 2002, 2003 and 2009. Hodge had also been sentenced in 2008 to one year for having a controlled substance within a Greene County facility.