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Wyatt Emmerich: State mental health solution in limbo as lawsuit proceeds

 

Wyatt Emmerich

 

 

At one end of Jackson's Congress Street sits the modern Federal Courthouse. At the other end sits our traditional State Capitol. They face each other at opposite ends of the street. 

 

This physical juxtaposition has significant meaning this month. A class action suit will determine who runs the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF) in Meridian. Will it be the federal courts or the state executive branch? 

 

For the last two weeks, I have listened to hours of testimony about EMCF, which has been designated as the state prison for criminals with mental illness. Eighty percent of the inmates suffer from a host of disorders including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and severe anxiety. 

 

As a lifelong journalist, I consider myself somewhat jaded. But even I was unprepared for the magnitude of the alleged atrocities. It's so bad, it's almost hard to put into words. 

 

The trial is open to the public. Bear in mind the defense has yet to make its case. I pray the plaintiffs have distorted the horrific conditions, but I fear they have not. 

 

Prisoners testified EMCF is run by two gangs, the Vice Lords and the Gangster Disciples. Official staff is dependent on the gangs for the day-to-day operations. 

 

Severely mentally ill patients are not given their medications, causing them to have seizures and psychotic breaks. They are beaten. They are locked in isolation where the lights and plumbing fail for weeks at a time. Their cells are rife with rats. They lose weight rapidly from inadequate food. Often the only way to get attention is to light a fire in their cell. They are constantly trying to kill themselves, typically by cutting themselves with scraps from broken light bulbs. 

 

Except for the severely mentally ill locked in solitary, the other prisoners have innumerable ways of defeating their locks and come and go from their cells as they please. Non-stop bedlam. A genuine hellhole. 

 

During what was supposed to be a lockdown, there was a gang fight on a video camera involving 30 prisoners. The video shows a prisoner in a wheelchair stabbed in the head. 

 

Contraband is everywhere: Cigarettes, cell phones, pot, meth, prescription drugs, you name it. The gangs control the trade. Guards are in on it. It's big business. 

 

The gangs are a controlling force. They can assault who they want at will. The gang leadership decides what prisoner gets what cell. 

 

Surprisingly, there is a great amount of documentation of this. For instance, the failure to do roll call is meticulously documented with daily reports. So are the fires, fights and failure to supply medicine. Over a thousand exhibits have been entered into evidence. Most are the prison's own internal reports. 

 

The testimony of one prisoner in particular is haunting me. He was a former network engineer from NASA Stennis Space Center on the coast. He suffers from schizophrenia, epilepsy, bipolar disorder and depression. He has lost weight to the point he looks like a ghost from the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp. He was convicted of rape and turned down a 10-year plea bargain. He wanted the death penalty. The judge gave him life. 

 

This man was trembling so badly during his testimony he could barely keep from falling out of his chair. He told a harrowing story of being locked in a dark cell of solitary confinement. Plumbing and lighting would go out for weeks at a time. Medication was sporadic, causing him to have epileptic fits, hear voices and go crazy. 

 

"I have, you know, murderous thoughts, suicidal thoughts, pains in my head, the shaking. I see and hear the voices. It's almost unbearable sometimes. . . but if I get my medication I'm fine. I feel normal. I feel human again." 

 

I'm not sure what the best protocol is for treating mentally ill people, but I'd bet handing them over to the prison gangs is not a recommended procedure. 

 

Bear in mind, mentally ill people are paranoid and delusional to begin with. Then you beat them up, starve them, withhold their medications, leave them in the dark with rats. Is it any wonder they constantly try to kill themselves? Prisoners cutting themselves is a daily occurrence. Suicides are rampant. 

 

One outside prison inspector was shown a cell covered in blood. She took a photo. It was entered into the exhibits. 

 

This inspector's visit was known days in advance, but the prison staff didn't even bother to clean up the blood on the floor. That's how commonplace it is. That's how bad it is. Blood, feces, roaches, rats are everywhere. 

 

EMCF is run by the third largest prison management company in the country. It's a publicly traded company, Management & Training Corp. They are caught up in the Chris Epps bribery scandal. Mississippi Attorney General has named them in a civil lawsuit he has filed. 

 

The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) has a compliance officer who testified about EMCF. Her reports show massive non-compliance. MDOC is supposed to be reimbursed for non-compliance, but it never was. It's as though MDOC just didn't care. 

 

That's the weird thing. Report after report show the atrocities but they were ignored. 

 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) are behind the class action suit. Yazoo native William Barbour, Haley Barbour's cousin, is presiding. There is no jury. He alone decides what to do. 

 

Sitting day after day in the courtroom, I can't help but like Judge Barbour. He seems wise and fair and can inject moments of humor in this dismal affair. A good friend from Yazoo City told me he is a class act and was his Boy Scout troop leader. "I don't want to say he's an Atticus Finch, but he's close." 

 

I sense that Barbour has zero desire to run this prison by judicial fiat, but what is to be done? We can't allow such barbarism in our state, even for psychotic drug dealers, rapists and murderers.  

 

I asked two expert witnesses how EMCF compared to other facilities throughout the nation. They both said the same thing. It was the worst of the 50 or so prisons they had inspected. By far. 

 

The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution bans the infliction of "cruel and unusual punishments." 

 

Can Barbour do any better? Based on results throughout the country, court intervention can work. The courts can do what our politicians won't do. Barbour doesn't have to get elected. He can force the state to do what it takes. The irony is that a properly run prison could be less expensive, not more. 

 

By the way, I am often the only "press" in the courtroom. The Clarion-Ledger, Jackson Free Press and Associated Press come and go sporadically. One day a New York Times reporter was there. Haven't seen anybody from Facebook or Google. 

 

No state officials of any kind are to be found. Nobody cares about crazy people, especially the criminal ones. 

 

Wyatt Emmerich is the editor and publisher of The Northside Sun, a weekly newspaper in Jackson. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

 

 

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