Parchman disturbance draws heavy emergency response, report of one death as state officials remain silent

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Vickie D. King / Mississippi Department of Corrections

In 1900, the Mississippi Legislature appropriated $80,000 to buy the nearly 4,000-acre Parchman Plantation to build a prison in the middle of the Delta. It remains one of the nation’s most notorious prisons.

PARCHMAN — Several local and state police agencies and medical responders were dispatched to the Mississippi State Penitentiary on Thursday as violent incidents have continued in prisons across the state.

The Mississippi Highway Patrol and sheriff’s offices in Sunflower, Tallahatchie, Bolivar and Washington counties sent more than 100 officers to the prison on Thursday after a violent incident broke out Thursday morning in Units 29 and 30.

The information gleaned about the violent outbreak comes from local law enforcement dispatched to the scene. State officials from the Mississippi Department of Corrections sidestepped questions on Thursday about the violence, while others did not respond to requests for comment.

Sunflower County Sheriff James Haywood told Mississippi Today that one inmate died at Parchman and several other inmates were injured on Thursday but that he did not have more specific details.

“There’s one dead, and there’s multiple injuries. I can’t even tell you how many, but everything seems to be under control,” Haywood, on his phone from Unit 29F at the prison, told Mississippi Today at 3:45 p.m. Thursday. Haywood said he and other officers had put every inmate inside Unit 29F in flex cuffs and were waiting for further instruction from the Highway Patrol.

A Mississippi Today reporter outside the prison’s front gate Thursday saw five ambulances leaving Parchman around 2:30 p.m. At that time, 10 Mississippi Department of Corrections vehicles and three Tallahatchie County Sheriff’s trucks were parked across the street from the facility. Around 3 p.m. the state agents exited their cars, put on bullet proof vests, got back in their cars and drove through the penitentiary gates.

Shortly after 3:30 p.m., more than a dozen additional police cars with lights and sirens on were headed toward the prison gate. At 4:20 p.m., eight state trooper vehicles were seen gassing up at the Ruleville Double Quick a few miles south of Parchman.

Two people in a Department of Corrections pickup truck told a Mississippi Today reporter she had to leave the property across the street from the main gate of the prison.

“Troopers are on site at Parchman,” Mississippi Highway Patrol Captain Johnny Poulos told Mississippi Today at 2:55 p.m. on Thursday. “Please touch base with Grace Fisher at (the Mississippi Department of Corrections) for further information.”

Fisher, the spokesperson at the Department of Corrections, told Mississippi Today by phone at 4:45 p.m. she could not release specific information about what was happening at Parchman.

A few minutes earlier at 4:15 p.m., the Department of Corrections released a statement that does not chronicle any specific information about what has happened at Parchman or any other state prison on Thursday and warned reporters.

“Because of the active investigations, the agency is limited in providing additional information,” the MDOC statement read. “Reporting allegations is irresponsible and could further jeopardize the safety of officers, inmates, and the public. The safety of staff, inmates, and the public is always the agency’s focus. The MDOC will keep the public informed as information becomes available that does not further jeopardize the safety of its institutions.”

Several other state agencies, short-staffed this week because of the holidays and government transitions occurring in January, did not respond to repeated attempts to obtain additional information, including outgoing Gov. Phil Bryant’s office and Gov.-elect Tate Reeves’ office.

Meanwhile, family members of Parchman inmates have expressed frustration and desperation on social media on Thursday as they’ve attempted to determine whether their loved ones are safe.

“I wish I had more information for you,” Haywood said. “They (state officials) ought to have a briefing or something. This is too big a deal to ignore.”

Thursday’s violence at Parchman is the latest in a string of deadly incidents in state prisons this week. In addition to the death and injuries at Parchman on Thursday, at least three prisoners have died and multiple inmates were injured at prisons around the state.

Local news outlets reported one death and two injuries following a “major disturbance” at South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville on Sunday; a fight leading to the death of one inmate at Parchman on New Year’s Eve; and another death following a fight at Chickasaw County Regional Correctional Facility in Houston.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections announced a statewide system lockdown on Tuesday, limiting the movements of prisoners.

As prisons around the state dealt with violent incidents this week, many of the directly-affiliated agencies that oversee the state prisons and law enforcement response do not have permanent leaders as a new term of state government begins in January.

Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall, who oversees the state prison system, will leave her post in mid-January for a job in the private sector. Mississippi Department of Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher, who oversees the Mississippi Highway Patrol, announced he will retire at the end of January.

Both agency heads are appointed by the governor. Bryant will remain in office until Jan. 14, when Reeves will be inaugurated as governor. Reeves has not announced who will take the reins at the departments of corrections or public safety.

As of early December, the total inmate state prison population statewide is 19,134, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections website. Parchman housed 3,252 people at the time and was second only to the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County, which housed 3,652 people.