Photo from former Mississippi State Penitentiary inmate Kelvin Sanders (288729)
Credit: Kelvin Sanders photo

The Mississippi Department of Corrections tried to start 2020 with business as usual. It’s been anything but.

Five people have died at three different facilities last week due to riots and alleged gang violence.

On Dec. 29, 40-year-old Terrandance Dobbins was killed at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution where there’s a ratio of 23 inmates to every one correctional officer. Days later, 25-year-old Walter Gates and Roosevelt Holliman were stabbed at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a place notorious for its racism and violence. Two other inmates, 36-year-old Denorris Howell and 26-year-old Gregory Emary, died in separate riots at the Mississippi State Penitentiary and the Chickasaw Regional Correctional Facility.

Last week, MDOC officials were interviewing and screening correctional officer applicants at some of the prisons where some of the riots occurred. MDOC said the interviews weren’t deterred by said riots.

In a statement, the MDOC said that since the issues are ongoing they can’t divulge much information other than to say that they’re working on it.

“All available resources are being used to address disturbances occurring around the state,” said an MDOC spokesperson. “The MDOC is being responsive in investigating the violence. Because of the active investigations, the agency is limited in providing additional information. Reporting allegations is irresponsible and could further jeopardize the safety of officers, inmates, and the public.”

During the ruckus, two inmates (Dillion Williams, 27, and David May, 42) were captured without incident in Rossville, Tenn. after escaping facilities. May is currently serving life in prison for two aggravated assaults and Williams is serving a 40-year sentence for residential burglary and aggravated assault.

Inmates have acted as citizen journalists uploading videos of prison conditions including mold and exposed wires. MDOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall said the videos have contributed to the chaos.

“There is a lot of misinformation fanning the flames of fear in the community at large, especially on social media,” stated Hall. “Cellphones are contraband and have been instrumental in escalating the violence.”

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said on Twitter that he’s working with the MDOC to restore “order and control” at the prison.

Although MDOC lifted its lockdown for community work centers, restitution centers and regional correctional facilities, the three state prisons and three private prisons remain on lockdown.

In a letter sent to the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Congressman Bernie Thompson of Mississippi and civil justice advocates such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP called on the agency to investigate the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ practice of incarcerating more people than it employs.

“More lives will be lost absent immediate intervention and swift, safe, and sensible decarceration,” stated Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “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.”

According to the SPLC, Mississippi has the third highest rate of incarceration in the United States, but a staff vacancy rate of nearly 50 percent and the lowest hourly wage for correctional officers in the country.

In the meantime, Hall announced on Dec. 31 that she was leaving the agency to work in the private sector.

“I have had an amazing opportunity to serve my state and its residents for more than four years thanks to Gov. Phil Bryant,” Hall said. “I am truly excited about the new opportunity I now have because it will allow me to continue being an advocate for criminal justice reform and to support better wages and working conditions for the Department of Corrections employees, for whom I have been honored to serve.”

Advocates hope that prison reform comes as soon as possible.

“Mississippi’s prison system has a long and bloody history of brutality,” stated Mississippi State Conference NAACP Executive Director Corey Wiggins. “The horrific violence that occurred last week was preventable had Mississippi taken action to reduce its prison population to an appropriate size. Now lives have been lost, the system is in chaos, and parents are living in terror waiting to hear whether their incarcerated children are among the dozens who have been injured.”