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After 5 Deaths in State Prisons In Recent Weeks, Mississippi Moving Inmates to Private Facilities. Here’s What to Know

6 minute read

After a spate violence in Mississippi prisons that has left five inmates dead and many others injured, Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) officials are sending prisoners at the state penitentiary to a private prison for their “safety.”

In a Jan. 6 press release, prison authorities confirmed they have signed a 90-day agreement to send 375 prisoners from Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, to Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, a private prison in Tutwiler, MS owned by CoreCivic Inc.

MDOC commissioner Pelicia Hall said that the private prison was chosen because it was the only place that could house the large number of additional prisoners. Explaining her decision, she cited a lack of staffing at Parchman Farm, as well as its “failing infrastructure.”

“The [Tallahatchie] facility is already operational and sufficiently staffed to manage close custody inmates,” Hall said in the statement. “The department acted swiftly because of the violence at MSP and the lack of manpower to restore and maintain order.”

In a statement sent to TIME on Jan. 3, the MDOC had previously confirmed that three inmates have been killed at Parchman Farm in recent weeks. Another man was killed in Chickasaw County Regional Correctional Facility in Houston, Miss. and a fifth in South Mississippi Correctional Institute in Leakesville, Miss.

According to the Associated Press the latest victim, 36-year-old Dennoris Howell was stabbed to death at Parchman Farm on the morning of Jan. 3.

“We are continuing to be vigilant and mindful of the situation,” MDOC Commissioner Pelicia E. Hall said in the Jan. 3 statement. “These are trying times for the Mississippi Department of Corrections. It is never a good feeling for a commissioner to receive a call that a life has been lost, especially over senseless acts of violence.”

All prisons across the state were placed on lockdown on Dec. 29. Many inmates at Parchman Farm had been moved to more secure housing units to prevent more violence, according to the MDOC. As of Jan. 10, the lockdown had ended for all prisons except for Parchman.

A lockdown means that inmates can only move in emergency situations, and that there will not be any visitation this weekend.

Though the MDOC has not provided any further details, Sunflower County Sheriff James Haywood says that the violence is connected to gang disputes in the prisons, according to the AP. (When reached for comment, the Sunflower County Sheriff’s department referred TIME to the MDOC.)

Sunflower County coroner Heather Burton also told The Clarion Ledger on Jan. 3 that her understanding is that the violence at Parchman Farm is due to “gang related riots.” The situation is “unprecedented,” she added, and “kind of surreal at this point.”

The first murder occurred on Dec. 29 at the South Mississippi Correctional Institute when an inmate, Terradance Dobbins, 40, was killed. Two other inmates were also injured in the incident, the AP said. This death prompted the original lockdown on Sunday.

On New Year’s Eve, Walter Gates, 25, was killed at Parchman Farm in a prison fight that also left other inmates injured. Gates reportedly suffered multiple stab wounds. Then on Jan. 2, a second inmate was killed at Parchman. This inmate has not been identified; he also suffered stab wounds according to the AP.

Also on Jan. 2, Gregory Emary, 26, was killed at Chickasaw County Regional Correctional Facility. Despite the fatality, Chickasaw County Sheriff Jim Meyers told the AP that they had the situation under control in “three minutes.”

Howell’s death on Jan. 3 brought the week’s grim total to 5.

According to the MDOC, the first four deaths were part of a “major disturbance”. Howell’s death however is apparently unrelated.

Also on Jan. 3, two inmates escaped from Parchman during an emergency count in the prison. Inmates Dillion Williams, 27, and David May, 42 used a GMC Pickup truck in their escape according to the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations. They were both captured on Jan. 6.

The fifth death came just a few days after Commissioner Hall announced that she will be resigning from her position in mid-January to work in the private sector. According to the Jackson Free Press, Hall will be advocating for “criminal justice reform and to support better wages and working conditions” in her new role.

The Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says prisons in the state have been dealing with deaths for years, in part due to the system being understaffed.

State Senator Joel Carter told NBC affiliate WLOX that the only way to fix the prison system is to improve prison facilities and pay the guards more. “The only way to fix this is money, period,” Carter told WLOX. “Mississippi is in great financial shape right now, we just have to be responsible about it.”

Carter added that the $25,000 a year that the guards make “isn’t worth it.”

The Mississippi ACLU is also critical of the way the prison system is run in the state. “Mississippi has a mass incarceration problem. Dramatic increases in imprisonment over the last 40 years have brought prisons and jails across the state to the breaking point,” Joshua Tom, former Interim Director of the ACLU of Mississippi said in a 2019 press statement.

And on Jan. 7 the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit organization based in Alabama, sent the Department of Justice a letter calling for them to investigate Mississippi prisons. The letter lays out in detail how state lawmakers are “deliberately and systemically” putting the lives of inmates in danger due to understaffing.

“More lives will be lost absent immediate intervention and swift, safe, and sensible decarceration,” Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the SPLC said in a statement. “Immediate federal intervention is necessary to protect the lives of the men and women incarcerated in Mississippi’s prison system and those who work there.”

In the midst of the prison violence. across the state, a U.S. District judge announced that a private prison in Mississippi is not violating inmates’ rights.

Judge William Barbour ruled against a lawsuit on dec. 31, originally filed in 2013, that alleged the East Mississippi Correctional Facility was violating the rights of prisoners by not providing healthcare, leaving them in solitary confinement for long periods of time and placing them at risk of violence from guards.

“While Plaintiffs and their expert witnesses argue that the environment and healthcare services at the prison could and should be better, those arguments do not establish that the conditions under which they are currently housed, as a class, are cruel and unusual,” Judge Barbour said in his ruling.

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Write to Josiah Bates at josiah.bates@time.com