Janice Wilkens received an upsetting call from her son on Jan. 2. “He was devastated, and he was nervous,” she told WMC-TV in Memphis, Tenn. “He wanted help right away.” Her son, 36-year-old Denorris Howell, was an inmate at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Miss., in the notorious Unit 29, where prison officials reported major disturbances due to gang violence. The next day, Wilkens learned her son had died in a fight with his cellmate.
Howell was one of five prisoners to die that week in Mississippi custody. During the first week of January, violence and chaos broke out at three state prisons, with inmates killing each other and a cell block in Parchman catching fire. Two inmates escaped, prompting a statewide prison lockdown until after they were recaptured—one the next day and one after two days. In total, 15 Mississippi prisoners have died since Dec. 29, most due to violence, some from suicide, and at least one by natural causes. Politicians have praised the state’s recent efforts at criminal justice reform, but these disturbances may indicate that more needs to be done.
“The level of violence that pervades Mississippi’s prison system is directly linked to the acute understaffing of its prisons,” the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and several other prison advocacy groups said in a letter sent Jan. 7 to the U.S. Department of Justice. A week later, attorneys for 29 inmates filed a lawsuit against prison officials with the help of funding from the philanthropic arm of rapper Jay Z’s Roc Nation company and rapper Yo Gotti.
Inmates have used contraband cellphones to send photos of the poor living conditions, especially in particular units at the Penitentiary in Parchman. One undated photo showed five men in striped prison uniforms sleeping on a cell floor beside a full toilet. Illicit phones, weapons, and drugs are persistent problems within the prisons. At one Mississippi correctional institution, 30 percent of inmate drug tests came back positive. Some believe guards are taking bribes and dealing drugs to supplement their income.
“At $25,000 a year working at Parchman, it’s not always easy to find people who want to dedicate themselves to a career in corrections,” outgoing Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, told reporters in early January.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections submitted documents to state budget writers last summer showing close to half of the department’s security jobs were vacant in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019. The advocacy groups’ letter to the Justice Department said the staff vacancy rate at Parchman was 42 percent. The unfilled posts have made room in the prisons for gangs, which officials hold responsible for many of the recent deaths.
Historically, the state has one of the country’s highest incarceration rates and highest poverty rates. It tried to tackle the problem of mass incarceration with a major criminal justice reform law in 2014. It implemented some alternatives to putting nonviolent offenders and probation violators in prison and gave more funding to reentry programs for released convicts. Bryant, whose term as governor ended Jan. 14, said the legislature had not funded all of his proposals for reforming the system, including hiring more guards and increasing salaries. When asked who was responsible for the recent violence, he said, “The inmates are the ones that take each other's lives. The inmates are the ones that fashion weapons out of metal. ... So, I would say, look to the inmates.”
But insecure, overcrowded, and understaffed prisons breed violence among prisoners, according to Prison Fellowship. Matthew J. Hall, provost of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote that Jesus and the writer of the book of Hebrews both commanded Christians to have compassion for prisoners: “While these passages have in mind especially our fellow Christians incarcerated for the faith, it cannot imply that we neglect our unbelieving neighbor in the next cell.”
In his inaugural State of the State speech on Jan. 27, Mississippi’s new governer, Tate Reeves, also a Republican, called for the closing of the troubled Unit 29 at Parchman.
“All Mississippians must be able to trust that the people in charge of the [prison] system are acting with competence to keep them safe,” he said. “We must be able to trust that the corrections officers operating these prisons have the tools that they need to do their jobs and that they are compensated fairly.”