More than 30 years after Mississippi's incarceration system was declared unconstitutional in the landmark case Gates v Collier, the Mississippi Department of Corrections is again being accused of subjecting its prison inmates to unauthorized mistreatment, prompting the ACLU to announce the formation of its first Prison and Jail Accountability Project.
The organization will serve as a means for families of prisoners and prisoner support groups to voice concerns to MDOC officials and legislators. The ACLU initiative will also provide communication links between inmates and their families while developing a network of legal advocacy groups and providing legal assistance to inmates who've suffered constitutional violations.
"These people are human beings. They are family members. They have loved ones. They have to come back into society whether we like it or not. So, how we treat them while they're incarcerated has a lot to do with what happens once they come out," said Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi. "Just because they're serving their sentences doesn't mean they can be refused medical attention or nutrition and beat on while they're incarcerated. Incarceration is their sentence, not getting beat and denied medical treatment and food."
The Oct. 19 announcement included speakers Gail Tyree, lead organizer of Grassroots Leadership Institute, Alvin Bronstein, director emeritus of the ACLU's National prison project, and the Rev. John Patterson, president of Operation Another Chance. It also came with a tearful assortment of personal accounts from parents.
Linda Williamson is the mother of Marco Williamson, 23, who is in prison for armed robbery of a convenience store in Wayne County. Marco is clinically depressed, and suffers suicidal tendencies and epileptic fits. He also claims to be repeatedly stripped down, hosed off and then left to stand naked, and says he suffers frequent beatings and spraying with mace. Williamson said her son was sent to Parchman without his medication. MDOC, said Williamson, had initially informed the facility that her son had no medical problem, then wrote him up for beating on his cell bars in the throes of his subsequent seizures. "I'm here because I need to find justice for my son. I'm here because I fear for his life, that one day a seizure may go unattended and I may never see him again," Williamson said, her voice breaking.
Barbara Black is the mother of Henry Moses, 32, who is confined at Parchman's hard case holding facility, Unit 32. Black read a letter from her son describing serving trays dotted with bird droppings, a lack of ventilation in July heat and similarly neglected medical requests.
"Medical requests are ignored. If my mother had not called prison officials, I would not have gotten the medical attention I needed. What about others who don't have mothers," Black recited, adding that her son reports a weight loss of 13 pounds.
Corrections Commissioner Epps did not respond to calls, but did tell a local paper that he wasn't aware of mistreatment of inmates, and derided the ACLU for calling a press conference without inviting him. Lambright pointed out that Epps had been invited to attend the ACLU-sponsored town meeting at Millsaps College addressing the same issue later that night. Epps did not attend.
Suzanne Singletary, communications director for MDOC, said that Epps was out of town that day. In addition, Singletary argued that the agency is already meeting very costly regulation demands. "We're meeting all the requirements," she said. "In order to be accredited you have to meet strict international/national guidelines. It's very expensive, but we're meeting the standards that every prison has to make."
When asked about the poor ventilation in Unit 32, Singletary said she did not have the regulation requirements on hand.
Gail Tyree, who also has an incarcerated child renounced the entire prison system as a newer version of slavery.
"The whole prison industrial complex is another form of control by the haves over the have-nots," Tyree said. "As we talk about the prison industrial complex, we're talking about all of Mississippi's prisons, the restitution centers and the private prisons. They're all a part of the same system that acts to keep the powerless without power."
Lambright said African Americans are more frequently incarcerated than whites, even though they are a significantly smaller portion of the nationwide population and commit crimes at the same rate or smaller than whites, depending on the region. U.S. Department of Justice statistics indeed show that minorities are imprisoned about three times the rate of whites.
Lambright said a significant portion of those incarcerated blacks begin their career as incarcerated teenagers.
"We're extremely concerned with the over-incarceration of African-Americans in the correc
tional facility. What we've found is that it often starts with our schools," Lambright said. "We see a direct link between prison incarceration and the over incarceration of children in the training schools. We're seeing those same numbers in the adult correction system."
At press time, MDOC officials and concerned parents were starting to talk. Lambright said Oct. 24 that inmate mother Bonnie Boyd received a letter from Epps, one day following the press conference, stating that he would like to meet with her to address her grievances over her son's treatment.
"It's a good start," Lambright said.