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Wyatt Emmerich: Despite pending federal lawsuit, outlook remains bleak for state's mentally ill prisoners

 

Wyatt Emmerich

 

 

Two hundred and twenty-six years ago, the Federalists were having trouble getting the states to ratify the new Constitution of the United States. The anti-Federalists, led by Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Patrick Henry, feared the proposed constitution did not adequately protect the individual rights of the common man.  

 

As a result, James Madison drafted the Bill of Rights. The rest is history. 

 

This history is playing out in real time as federal District Court Judge William Barbour must decide whether to order sweeping changes at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF) just east of Meridian. 

 

The Eighth Amendment of the Bill of Rights bans "cruel and unusual" punishments. The question is whether the mentally ill prisoners at EMCF have been subject to cruel and unusual punishments. 

 

Almost every day for the past five weeks, I attended portions of the trial which was held in the beautiful Federal Building in downtown Jackson. The sparsely attended trial is now over and we await the judge's decision. 

 

As a journalist, the trial offered a motherlode of insights into the Mississippi prison system, one of the biggest items in the state budget at $300 million a year, five percent of total general fund expenditures. 

 

If you had asked me before the trial to rate Mississippi prisons on a scale of one to ten with one being barbaric and 10 being ideal, I would have said a five. Now I would say it's closer to a one or two. 

 

I listened to a dozen prisoners testify. The horror stories were sickening: rats, roaches, rapes, beatings, solitary confinement for weeks in total darkness, deathly ill patients denied medicines, inedible food, fires in cells to get attention, blood covered cells from suicidal cuttings, locks that are easily defeated allowing gangs to have the run of the prison. Drugs, shanks and other contraband are rife. 

 

There have already been four deaths so far this year. 

 

The prison is managed by a private company, Management and Training Corporation (MTC), which got the job in a no-bid contract signed by former Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) Commissioner Chris Epps. 

 

This is the same company that hired Cecil McCrory, a former state legislator, as a consultant for $120,000 a year. McCrory kicked back over $100,000 to Epps. They are both now in jail for bribery while MTC still runs the prison. Attorney General Jim Hood is currently suing MTC over the affair. 

 

By contract, MTC is supposed to have a certain number of guards staffing the prison. But internal reports presented at the trial show MTC only staffs about half the positions. As a result, MTC is supposed to refund millions of dollars to MDOC, but not a penny has been repaid to the state. 

 

The MDOC contract compliance officer has reported on this non-compliance for years but the reports have been ignored by current MDOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall, according to her testimony. 

 

Meanwhile, the EMCF compliance officer sent email after e-mail to officers at MDOC and MTC complaining that the prison was being run by gangs. Nobody did anything. 

 

How do you explain this? The only logical explanation is gross incompetence or a continuation of the type of corruption that landed Epps and McCrory in jail. 

 

Because states have done a terrible job running prisons, the federal courts have intervened over the last 50 years. Today, over half the nation's prisoners reside in prisons that are under some type of federal court order. 

 

In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Antonin Scalia, raised the bar for federal intervention. The prison had to engage in "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" and exhibit "intentional indifference."  

 

Sending a thousand mentally ill people to a prison run by gangs, in my humble opinion, meets both standards. 

 

I recall one young man who was raped. He wanted to press charges against his rapist. The guard said, "So what's the matter? Does your little booty hurt?" The prison refused to send the blood and semen covered underwear to the local sheriff's office. As a result, the rapist went unpunished. That is just one of many horror stories. 

 

Just last year, this same story played out in Alabama. During the trial, one of the young prisoners committed suicide shortly after testifying, shocking the federal judge, Myron Thompson, who issued an emergency decree to change prison practices. 

 

In June 2017, Judge Thompson issued a 305 page opinion implementing sweeping changes into the Alabama prison system. 

 

Judge Thompson wrote, "Surprisingly, the evidence from both sides (including testimony from Commissioner Dunn and Associate Commissioner Naglich as well as that of all experts) extensively and materially supported the plaintiffs' claims." 

 

Unlike Alabama where the prison officials acknowledged the inadequacies of their system, Mississippi prison officials vigorously defended EMCF. Their testimony was evasive and defensive. 

 

After the plaintiffs presented a veritable mountain of damning evidence, I wondered what the defense would say. In essence, they shrugged their shoulders and said, "So what?" In the words of the EMCF warden during his testimony about violence and contraband: "It's the nature of prisons. It's the nature of the beast." 

 

We can do better than that. 

 

Unlike Judge Thompson, an African-American appointed by Jimmy Carter, Judge Barbour, a Yazoo City cousin of Haley Barbour appointed by Ronald Reagan, seems to have little fire in his belly for trying to remedy the EMCF hellhole. 

 

And who can blame him? Recruiting skilled guards and psychiatrists to a small Mississippi city is a monumental task. Managing the criminally insane has always been one of the most challenging aspects of civilization. 

 

That being said, no judge likes to be overruled by a higher court and the case against EMCF is rock solid. The case law is clear. You cannot allow prisoners, especially the mentally ill, to be abused and denied appropriate medical treatment. 

 

I don't always agree with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) or the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) but I give them credit for being an advocate for this helpless class of people. 

 

The Republican leadership of Mississippi cares nothing about the criminally insane. Not one of them attended a single minute of the trial. Meanwhile, there are empty buildings at Whitfield. Their only concern is to cut the prison budget by outsourcing its operation to private companies with questionable backgrounds. As a result, we have gangs running our prisons. If we don't nip this in the bud now, we will regret it. 

 

Mississippi spends a 10th as much as other states per prisoner. The chance of the Republicans spending more is nil. If the courts intervene, then the Republicans have an out. They can claim they had no choice and keep their Americans for Prosperity super PAC money. It's a good deal for everyone. 

 

I am amazed at the checks and balances we enjoy in the United States. Our federal system, combined with advocacy groups, will end up making a huge difference and well they should. 

 

The Alabama governor has suggested calling a special session to address their court order and their dilapidated prison system. At the very least, Judge Barbour should appoint the SPLC and ACLU as court monitors to oversee reforms at EMCF. MDOC has failed miserably and desperately needs such oversight. 

 

Locking up the mentally ill and throwing away the key is wrong. As a civilized society we must treat the mentally ill, not terrorize them with solitary confinement in a dark, rat infested cell. 

 

With all due respect to non-believers and other religious groups, Mississippi is still a Christian state. As such, there is one ultimate authority for most of the voters in Mississippi. Jesus Christ was clear about prisoners. What we do to them, we do to him. It would be wise to obey the King of the Universe. 

 

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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