If the condition were a virus, the entire state would go into quarantine. By any measurement, it is a crisis, and Mississippi prison officials are trying to determine and deal with the tremendous number of inmates who have died while in custody in little more than a month. As of February 3, the number of inmates dying violently or by their own hands reached a total of 15.
The Latest Victim
The most recent victim, Jesus Garcia, 39, was found in his cell at the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility. Garcia, who was serving a 20-year sentence for rape, was found unresponsive and attempts by medical personnel to revive him were unsuccessful. Authorities say there were no signs of assault, and Garcia’s death remains under investigation. He is the fifth inmate to die in just over a week.
On January 29, Nora Ducksworth, 52, died at the Marshall County Correctional Facility (“MCCF”). Officials at Management and Training Company, which runs the facility for the county, say there are no “initial” signs of foul play, and Ducksworth may have succumbed to natural causes. The investigation is ongoing. Another MCCF inmate, Jermaine Tyler, 38, died on January 25, and again officials deny initial signs of foul play.
A Near Miss
The total was nearly higher. The majority of the deaths have occurred at the State Penitentiary at Parchman in its Unit 29, one of the most violent such institutions in a state notorious for the poor conditions in its facilities and severe staffing shortages.
It is also the state’s oldest prison and is surrounded by 18,000 acres of farmland. Two Parchman inmates hanged themselves, and others died as a result of riots that began on December 29.
A third suicide by hanging was almost added to the list on January 31. An attorney inside the prison interviewing inmates said he heard a state trooper inform a corrections officer in Unit 29 that he had just cut down an inmate who tried to hang himself. Only two days earlier, Governor Tate Reed had called for the closure of Unit 29. That was after nine inmates had died.
Lack of Funding
Mississippi Department of Corrections representatives state that lack of funding is contributing to the recent deaths and gang violence in the prison system. Parchman inmates, all-male, are classified as requiring administrative segregation or long-term segregation, in protective custody, or have been condemned to execution.
Some county sheriffs are recommending that the state transfer some medium-risk inmates from its facilities to county jails. These sheriffs say that such a move would lessen the extreme strain state facilities are currently experiencing, as well as saving money. It costs $14 more per inmate per day to house prisoners in county facilities than in those run by the state, a potential annual savings of $22.5 million.
State lawmakers introduced some measures to deal with the growing catastrophe last week. The Southern Poverty Law Center has also requested that the Department of Justice investigate the series of deaths.
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