Rep. Bennie Thompson to seek federal investigation into ‘ongoing failures’ within MDOC

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Bill Clark, CQ Roll Call/Associated Press

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., leaves the House Democrats’ caucus meeting in the Capitol on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson is calling for a federal civil rights investigation into conditions at Mississippi prisons following days of bloodshed leading to the deaths of five men.

Thompson, the state’s lone congressional Democrat and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, made the announcement on Twitter Monday.

“I will be requesting that the U.S. Attorney General launch an investigation into the ongoing failures in safety, security, health, and environmental standards within the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” Thompson tweeted. “This is unacceptable.”

Thompson hopes such an investigation will force state lawmakers to change conditions across the state’s prisons, a spokesperson told Mississippi Today.

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. The Mississippi Department of Corrections declared a statewide lockdown, while state troopers and other Department of Public Safety agency employees entered Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman to “restore order,” state officials announced.

Mississippi Today has reached out to MDOC for comment.

Thompson’s request comes amid a flurry of calls by prisoner rights advocates for the Department of Justice to look into issues across Mississippi prisons.

Thompson co-signed a letter with numerous civil rights groups to DOJ’s Civil Rights Division Tuesday, arguing that more lives will be lost in the state’s prisons without immediate intervention. The letter cites the significant understaffing across facilities as the main factor that has led to the levels of violence among prisoners.

“Mississippi’s deliberate indifference to the risk of harm caused by its grossly inadequate staffing violates the federal rights of the people in its custody and care,” reads the letter. “Public reporting, political pressure, and private advocacy have failed to achieve meaningful results.”

“Nothing short of investigation and, if necessary, enforcement action by the Department of Justice will compel Mississippi to cease violating the federal constitutional rights of people held in its decaying and understaffed prisons.”

Earlier this year, the national group Families Against Mandatory Minimums drew parallels between conditions in Mississippi facilities and those of Alabama prisons deemed unconstitutional in a DOJ report.

Thompson and one other member of Mississippi’s congressional delegation, Rep. Michael Guest, have spoken publicly regarding the state’s prison crisis so far.