Why a DOJ probe, the latest in a string of actions against Mississippi prisons, could take years

Print Share on LinkedIn More

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, oversaw a field hearing at Tougaloo College Thursday, Nov. 7.

The U.S. Department of Justice and state officials are probing conditions in Mississippi prisons that led to recent uprisings and the deaths of five inmates, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting learned recently.

The move comes on the heels of criminal-justice advocates, public officials and family members of incarcerated people pleading for federal intervention in the crisis, which prompted Gov. Tate Reeves to launch a national search for a permanent leader of the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

The Justice Department, through its Civil Rights Division, is more than familiar with problems plaguing correctional institutions in the Deep South, but their investigations and the settlements that normally follow often take years.

“I know from my time as an Assistant United States Attorney that any investigation undertaken by the Department of Justice is going to take time,” said Cliff Johnson, now the director of the MacArthur Justice Center and a law professor at the University of Mississippi.

“Immediate relief from our current prison crisis can only be provided by those in power in Mississippi.  We welcome DOJ’s involvement, but we can’t expect them to solve our problems for us.”

For example, the Justice Department launched an investigation regarding similar circumstances into the Alabama state prison system in October 2016 but did not announce their findings until April 2019, when the agency alleged that the state’s prison conditions violate inmates’ Eighth Amendment right against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The Justice Department required Alabama to take several remedial actions within days following the release of DOJ’s investigation to avoid a federal lawsuit. Alabama policymakers, having passed no sweeping action to address the prison crisis there, say they’re still working to address the DOJ’s concerns. Meanwhile, activists in Alabama say the state has not done enough.

The U.S. Department of Justice is also no stranger to Mississippi’s prison system. Since 2010, the Justice Department has investigated or filed suit in Mississippi four times for unconstitutional practices at youth and adult correctional facilities.

In a March 2012 letter to Gov. Phil Bryant, the Justice Department said children at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility failed to receive “constitutional adequate care.” The department found the facility to be “deliberately indifferent to staff sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior” with children and that the staff engaged in a pattern of excessive force against children housed in the facility.

That investigation started in October 2010; later, Walnut Grove was converted to an adult facility and eventually shuttered amid a federal civil rights case and consent decree.

In 2012, the Justice Department sued the state, the city of Meridian and Lauderdale County for running what federal authorities characterized as a school-to-jail pipeline. Specifically, justice officials accused Mississippi of arresting students referred by the school districts without establishing whether there was probable cause to justify the arrests. In June 2015, the federal justice department settled the case. 

Under the terms of that agreement, the Meridian police department was barred from arresting students for infractions otherwise addressed as school discipline issues and requires officers to document probable cause for children arrested on criminal charges. The settlement also required the police department to follow constitutional procedures when arresting children, including reading them Miranda rights and prohibiting interrogations outside of the presence of a guardian or attorney.

Gregory K. Davis, the southern district U.S. Attorney, said at the time the settlement would “help protect the children of Meridian from deprivations of educational opportunity as well as due process.”

In May 2015, the Justice Department issued a scathing report on conditions at the Raymond Detention Center in Hinds County, including that the county failed to protect prisoners from violence and excessively held them past court-ordered release dates. The department reached a settlement with Hinds County in 2016.

The settlement, which assistant U.S. Attorney General Vanita Gupta said would make the Hinds County jail “smarter and fairer,” called for increasing safety with better staffing and supervision and facility upgrades, limiting the use of segregation and improved screening and better treatment for prisoners with mental illnesses. Today, Hinds County officials are still working to meet compliance standards for jail conditions in that case.

And earlier in 2016, the Justice Department also found that the LeFlore County Juvenile Detention Center violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act.

“Incarceration for even a short time is a turbulent time in a child’s life, and appropriate special education services can be a stabilizing factor,” northern district U.S. Attorney Felicia C. Adams said then in a statement.

Recently, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security, sent a 23-page letter asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether Mississippi is violating the constitutional rights of approximately 20,000 state inmates.

“Mississippi’s officials and legislators have been well aware of but taken no steps to remedy the over-incarceration and understaffing crisis that has been building for years,” the letter concludes.

It continued: “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.”

Michelle Liu and R.L. Nave contributed reporting.