Cruel as Usual

Mississippi Death Row conditions persist

Daniel J. Hughes

Rat-infested cells, feces-flooded cellblocks, the screams of psychotic inmates and temperatures exceeding 100 degrees are among the worst of the punishments that Mississippi Death Row prisoners have endured. But despite a federal judge’s ruling that the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) was violating the Eighth Amendment by inflicting “cruel and unusual punishment” on its Death Row inmates held at Parchman Correctional Facility, the state has refused to improve the conditions, choosing instead to appeal the judge’s decision on legal technicalities concerning the right of prisoners to choose their own attorneys.

In his May 21, 2003, decision U.S. Magistrate Jerry A. Davis wrote, “No one in a civilized society should be forced to live under conditions that force exposure to another person’s bodily wastes. No matter how heinous the crime committed, there is no excuse for such living conditions.”

The judge ordered the MDOC to make 10 improvements, including better plumbing, lighting and insect control by July 7, 2003. In addition he said the department should make fans, ice water, and showers available to inmates if temperatures exceed 90 degrees. Since Judge Davis’s ruling, the MDOC has changed psychiatric care providers and vowed to attend to minor improvements such as installing window screens to protect inmates from insects and vermin. However, according to the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Amy Fettig, “No real or lasting changes have been made.”

The squalor of Mississippi’s Death Row was originally brought to the attention of the ACLU in Janurary 2002, when the inmates staged a hunger strike to protest the filthy conditions. Representatives from the ACLU’s National Prison Project toured the facility and tried to negotiate with prison officials for improved conditions. When negotiations failed, the ACLU and Washington D.C. law firm Holland and Knight filed a case in July 2002 against the MDOC on behalf of six prisoners on Death Row.

Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps, who disputes the prisoners’ right to obtain legal defense from the ACLU, defends the conditions at Parchman. He says that implementing changes would cost $500,000 a year and the department is currently operating with a deficit of approximately $60 million. MDOC officials are concerned that the cost of improving the conditions on Death Row could take away from education and literacy programs. “I’ve been in this business for 23 years and I’ve been to many prisons throughout the U.S.,” Epps told reporters in May. “Ours is no different from any other state that I’ve been in.”

Yet courts across the nation have found that defective plumbing, inadequate or constant lighting, exposure to rodents and insects, and unsanitary food service are all violations of the Eighth Amendment. When psychiatrist Terry Kupers toured the facility in August 2002, he noted, that the prison’s conditions “are virtually certain to cause medical illness and destruction of mental stability and functioning. Parchman’s Death Row rivals any prison I have seen for cruel, harsh and inhumane conditions of confinement, even compared with super maximum facilities.”

“The citizens of Mississippi should be ashamed that their tax dollars are supporting a facility where a stray dog wouldn’t be housed overnight, let alone human beings serving lengthy prison sentences,” says North Carolina attorney Betsy Wolfenden, a member of the International Citizens for Human Incarceration at Parchman. Carolyn Clayton, a founder of the victims rights group Survival Inc., agrees, “Even though they’ve done some horrific things, they are still human beings.”

Before the ACLU got involved, inmates experienced problems contacting their attorneys. Prison officials cut off phone connections and punished prisoners by denying them stamps. This was especially galling because most prisoners on Death Row in Mississippi are appealing their sentences. Out of 170 death sentences in Mississippi since 1976, 70 have been vacated, and only six prisoners have been executed. There are currently 66 prisoners on Death Row at Parchman.

On November 5, the Fifth District Court of Appeals heard the ACLU’s oral argument for the merits of the case. If Davis’ ruling withstands the appeal, and the MDOC is forced to comply, the effects of this case could have far reaching consequences for national prison reform.

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