The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the Mississippi prison system after a string of inmate deaths in the past few months, officials said Wednesday.
Federal prosecutors are looking into conditions at four state prisons after the deaths of at least 15 inmates since late December. The investigation is examining whether state corrections officials are adequately protecting prisoners from physical harm and will look into whether there are adequate health care and suicide prevention services.
The investigation by the Justice Department's civil rights division will specifically focus on conditions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, the South Mississippi Correctional Institution, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility and the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, the Justice Department said.
The Wilkinson facility holds state prisoners, and the state pays a private company, Management & Training Corporation, to operate it.
The use of such investigations examining the patterns and practices of law enforcement agencies has been curtailed under the Trump administration compared with their use during the Obama administration.
Some of the inmate deaths in recent weeks happened during confrontations between inmates. Some were suicides.
Violence is a recurring problem in Mississippi prisons, where many jobs for guards are unfilled. Officials with the state Department of Corrections have said for years that it's difficult to find people to work as guards because of low pay, long hours and dangerous conditions.
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The deputy legal director for Southern Poverty Law Center, Lisa Graybill, said in a statement Wednesday that Mississippi prisons "have a brutal history rooted in slavery and convict leasing."
"It is time for the federal government to step in and do what the Mississippi Department of Corrections has failed to: end the violence and ensure humane living conditions," Graybill said. "Dozens have died and hundred of others live in squalid conditions with standing sewage in freezing temperatures as a result of ... Mississippi's neglect. Mississippi’s prisons are overcrowded, understaffed, and aren’t safe for anyone."
Health department inspections show Parchman has had longstanding problems with broken sinks and toilets in cells, holes in cell walls, widespread mold and mildew in showers, and sanitation problems in kitchens.
Entertainment mogul Jay-Z and rapper Yo Gotti are paying attorneys who are suing the state on behalf of inmates over conditions in the prisons. The lawsuit filed in mid-January says the prisons are "plagued by violence" and inmates are forced to live in decrepit and dangerous conditions.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said in his State of the State speech on Jan. 27 that he has told the Department of Corrections to take steps to shut down Parchman's Unit 29, but the department has not said how long that will take.
The department's interim commissioner, Tommy Taylor, said after Reeves' speech that inmates in Unit 29 have clean water to drink and warm water for showers. He said some inmates had not been allowed to shower for several days while prisons were on lockdown because of the violence. He said those no longer on lockdown have had a chance to shower and have been given new clothes.
Taylor also said toilets have been repaired and crews are patching holes that allowed rain into buildings. He said workers are also repairing problems with electrical systems and heating.
Balsamo reported from Washington.