The entrance to Mississippi State Prison at Parchman.


As of Jan. 3, at least five prisoners at three Mississippi correctional facilities were confirmed dead in disturbances at jails and prisons. These deaths come amid a series of violent disturbances reported via social media and news outlets, and on the heels of a federal judge’s dismissal of a class-action lawsuit over prison conditions at a privately operated prison in Meridian.

December 29

  • A “major disturbance” occurs at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Greene County, The Clarion Ledger reports. Terrandance Dobbins, a 40-year-old, is killed. Two other inmates receive non-life threatening injuries.

December 31

  • The Mississippi Department of Corrections places a statewide system lockdown on facilities.
  • Department of Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall announces she is stepping down from the post to work in the private sector.
  • Conversations and rumors about disturbances at correctional facilities begin spreading on social media.

January 1

  • Walter Gates, a 25-year-old inmate, dies at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman from multiple stab wounds, according to Sunflower County coroner Heather Burton.

January 2

  • Gregory Emary, a 26-year-old inmate, is reported dead at the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) Regional Correctional Facility in Chickasaw County; two others inmates are injured, according to WTVA.
  • Inmate Roosevelt Holliman is pronounced dead.
  • Rumors circulate that the National Guard is dispatched to the penitentiary; this is not confirmed. Mississippi Today verifies that the Mississippi Highway Patrol and sheriff’s offices in Sunflower, Tallahatchie, Bolivar and Washington counties sent more than 100 officers to Parchman after violence broke out in Units 29 and 30.
  • A department of corrections spokesperson fails to offer details on events unfolding at Parchman. The agency releases a statement, which said the agency is “limited” in providing information and “reporting allegations is irresponsible.”

January 3

  • Denorris Howell, a 36-year-old, is reported dead at Parchman.
  • Reports originating on social media of armed officers shooting prisoners remain unconfirmed.
  • Various videos and other images continue surfacing, reportedly from inside Parchman showing ongoing violence and conditions in the prison

Also on Friday, Sunflower County Coroner Heather Burton released a statement to address the high volume of questions and phone calls she has received in the last three days. Burton said Gates was pronounced dead in Unit 29E at 12:22 a.m. on Jan. 1 and suffered multiple stab wounds.

Roosevelt Holliman, 32, was pronounced dead on Jan. 2 after the individual “had been stabbed multiple times during a gang-related riot” in Unit 29D, she said.

On Jan. 3, Burton was called back to Parchman to investigate a separate inmate’s death. Burton originally said inmate Denorris Howell “was involved in an altercation with a cellmate which led to both being stabbed multiple times” in Unit 29I, but late Friday afternoon she clarified that while Howell was involved in an altercation, he did not sustain any stab wounds and actually sustained a neck injury. He was pronounced dead in the early morning, she said.

“All official causes of death are pending the results of the autopsies,” Burton said.

Burton asked that any other questions be directed to the Department of Corrections.

Gwenita Roberts spoke to Mississippi Today from her home in Huntsville, Alabama. Her brother is at South Mississippi Correctional Institute in Greene County where the “major disturbance” occurred and Dobbins was killed. Her brother was moved there from Parchman a few months ago, Roberts said.

“I spoke with him Wednesday — I guess he’s as safe as he can be. He just said that the gangs are retaliating against each other and they’re just killing each other, he said it’s just crazy in there.”

Even before the recent unrest that she has been tracking through her brother and other family members’ accounts on social media, she’s been worried about his well-being due to lack of comprehensive medical care at Parchman.

“When you have a loved one somewhere, you just hate that they’re in a situation, not just your loved one, but anybody — it’s crazy,” Roberts said. “They did what they did, but they don’t deserve to be treated like dogs.”

Around 2:30 p.m., the Department of Corrections releases a statement saying that the fifth confirmed death and a fire were unrelated to major disturbances. Commissioner Hall, through the statement added that, “investigators have been working tirelessly and aggressively pursuing leads to determine what sparked the violence. The department has confirmed that some of the major disturbances are gang-related. The identities of the gangs or security threat groups will not be released to the public for security purposes.”

The statement continued: “There is a lot of misinformation fanning the flames of fear in the community at large, especially on social media,” Commissioner Hall said. “Cellphones are contraband and have been instrumental in escalating the violence.”

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who takes office as governor on Jan. 14, tweeted that he received a briefing from the department of corrections on Friday. Restoring order and safety is the first priority, he said.

“Then we need answers and justice on the people who perpetrated this violence. Any loss of life is tragic and must be addressed,” Reeves said. “There is much work to be done in our correctional system.”

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.

Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.

Erica Hensley, a native of Atlanta, has been working as an investigative reporter focusing on public health for Mississippi Today since May 2018. She is a Knight Foundation fellow for our newsroom’s collaboration with local TV station WLBT and curates The Inform[H]er, our monthly women and girls’ newsletter. She is the 2019 recipient of the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Erica received a bachelor’s in print journalism and political science from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a master’s in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.

Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.