Parchman’s former supermax unit, shuttered amid civil-rights lawsuits, back in use after prison unrest

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Following a spate of violent incidents that have led to the deaths of several prisoners in the last week, the Mississippi Department of Corrections has moved at least 100 men at Parchman to a notorious supermax unit the agency agreed to close nearly a decade ago.

As of Sunday, MDOC’s online inmate database listed more than 100 people in Unit 32 at Mississippi State Penitentiary. An attorney who once represented prisoners at the facility has also confirmed images on social media were taken inside the unit by the men moved there this past week.

In 2010, then corrections commissioner Christopher Epps shuttered the unit, which once housed mentally ill prisoners under permanent lockdown, following litigation from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“You had men who were housed there for years at a time who had been placed in lockdown conditions, who were stuck in cells in units that were deteriorated, where basic necessities like sinks and toilets didn’t work [and] the lighting was substandard or nonexistent,” said Eric Balaban, senior staff counsel with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, which has sued the state of Mississippi repeatedly over conditions at its prison facilities in the last twenty years.

Mississippi’s beleaguered corrections system has garnered increased scrutiny in the new year as reports surfaced of deadly fights among prisoners at several facilities, including Parchman and South Mississippi Correctional Institution at Leakesville. On Jan. 4, the state reported two men had escaped from Parchman grounds; both have been found.

“I am unable to respond to individual calls or emails, considering the volume of requests as I work on gathering information about the capture of the second escaped Parchman inmate,” MDOC communications director Grace Fisher wrote in an emailed response to requests from Mississippi Today Monday afternoon.

On social media, the agency has maintained that conditions at its prisons are currently “stable.”

Ron Welch, a now-retired attorney who previously represented state prisoners against Mississippi in the 1970s-era federal class-action lawsuit Gates v. Collier, said he had seen photographs and video circulating on social media in the last few days that depict men sleeping six to a single cell and men in prison uniforms walking through puddles of standing water in the hallways, broken showers and peeling walls.

Those images, which Welch said are of Unit 32, suggest the facility’s structural conditions have not changed.

Some people have tracked their family members’ moves from other buildings at the prison to Unit 32 using the online inmate locator. One woman, who has not heard from her husband in Parchman since Wednesday evening, told Mississippi Today that she has repeatedly called MDOC in the last several days, but has not gotten any information about her husband’s new location.

“It’s like I’m living my own personal hell,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be printed out of fear of retaliation. “I can only imagine what [my husband], along with the rest of them, are going through.”

Cliff Johnson, who heads the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi, said the movement of prisoners to Unit 32 suggests the corrections department has lost control of other units at the prison.

“My understanding is that killing begets killing in prison culture,” Johnson said. “Due to the lack of control in Unit 29 and elsewhere at Parchman, correctional officers did not have the capacity to stop the killing without MDOC resorting to the extraordinary decision to move people into a unit abandoned a decade ago.”

In 1990, MDOC opened Unit 32, which was sued in 2002 by the ACLU representing death row inmates. A federal judge later found that MDOC had violated prisoners’ constitutional rights, leading to a federal consent decree to improve medical and mental health care and other issues with the unit.

The agreement between the ACLU and the Department of Corrections over Unit 32 was later terminated by a judge based on Mississippi’s compliance with the consent decree. That federal case does not prevent MDOC from re-opening the unit, Balaban confirmed.