Death Row at Unit 29, Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman

The men on death row didn’t witness the violence that left multiple prisoners dead and many more injured in fights that tore through Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman beginning New Year’s Eve.

Housed separately from other prisoners in Unit 29, the 39 men on death row spend up to 24 hours each day locked in their single 8-by-12 cells.

But as the corrections department charged with prisoners’ safety has scrambled to retain control of the prison in the wake of chaos, conditions have worsened for men on death row, who are not linked to incidents reported elsewhere in the unit but remain on lockdown with the rest of the prison, say attorneys who represent them.

“They’re hostages as much as anything to whatever else is going on,” said Alison Steiner, an attorney with the Office of State Public Defender.

In early January, as then-Gov. Phil Bryant sent in state troopers to quell unrest at Parchman, several death-row inmates waited at least two days without medication, including psychotropic drugs, according to one attorney who asked that their name not be published fearing retaliation for speaking to the media. Mealtimes came and went without food trays. When food did arrive, it was cold and sparse: a single bologna sandwich, a half foam plastic cup of Cheerios and milk, the attorney said.

One man told a lawyer recently that officers have not allowed him to shower since late December. As of nearly noon Thursday, men had yet to receive any water bottles, according to attorneys. 

A storm that ripped through the Delta last weekend caused Parchman to lose power. Toilets stopped flushing — a common problem across the prison, as health inspection reports have found over the years. Correctional officers handed out trash bags for the men to cover the toilets; as a makeshift sanitation system, many of the men have resorted to defecating in the bags or in food trays instead for tier workers to pick up. Some men have avoided eating, attorneys said.

Grace Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections, declined to comment, citing pending litigation over Unit 29.

Lawyers for music mogul Jay-Z and Memphis-born artist Yo Gotti filed a lawsuit on behalf of 29 prisoners at Parchman last week over conditions at the facility.

Prisoners’ advocates say these conditions are prevalent across the rest of the prison. At a hearing in front of the state’s Corrections and Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force Friday, family members and organizers with the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition decried conditions including a lack of electricity and water, mold, rats and roaches, across the state’s facilities.

“The constitutional failures of Mississippi’s prison system are not limited to a single issue, nor a single facility,” reads a letter by multiple civil rights groups calling for a Department of Justice investigation last week. “Rather, they are profound and widespread, resulting from years of neglect compounded by severe understaffing.”

Parchman, like other major Mississippi prisons, faces a shortage of correctional officers as their ranks have plummeted in recent years. Many of the officers now log back-to-back shifts, said Brenda Scott, president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees.

Established in the early 1900s as a penal farm modeled after a slave plantation, Parchman is structurally past repair, many advocates say.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections has itself acknowledged the prison’s crumbling facilities.

“[Unit 29], originally constructed in 1980 and renovated in 1996, has become unsafe for staff and inmates due to age and general deterioration,” wrote commissioner Pelicia Hall, who left the job this month, in an August 2019 budget letter to lawmakers.

Last week, MDOC moved 375 prisoners from Unit 29 down the road to a privately owned facility in Tutwiler, following an emergency declaration by Bryant and a 90-day contract with the prison operator. The corrections department has publicly raised the question of where to move the 625 remaining maximum security inmates at Unit 29.

Newly inaugurated Gov. Tate Reeves told reporters recently he was “looking at all options throughout the system as to where to properly house inmates.” Reeves appointed Tommy Taylor, current mayor of Boyle and a former legislative corrections chairman, as interim corrections commissioner.

Living conditions in the prison at large have faced close scrutiny by lawmakers in recent weeks. The Department of Justice is reported to have launched criminal and civil investigations into the state’s prison system.

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Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.