Since late December, the eighteenth inmate of Mississippi’s prison system died at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County, Mississippi. While this inmate had no obvious signs of injury on his body, most of the other deaths were the result of violence or suicide.
These deaths occur as the result of conditions that have been in place for some time in the state’s prison system. Reports of dehumanizing occurrences like murders, rapes, beatings, and torture often targeting inmates of racial minorities are not uncommon. Many prisons have open sewage, a polluted water supply, and kitchens with rodent and insect infestations.
Such conditions are inherently damaging to all inmates’ mental health, and even more so for inmates with a history of mental illness. Interestingly, in 2009, the ACLU identified the mental health program at Parchman Prison in Mississippi as the gold standard for prison-based mental health treatment. The program focused on administrative segregation, or solitary confinement. Prison guards typically use administrative segregation to punish inmates for violent or disruptive behavior.Inmates are isolated in their cells for twenty-three hours per day with only one hour outside the cell for exercise and a shower.
Parchman Prison’s program involved three parts: (1) identify inmates in administrative segregation who needed mental health treatment, (2) reward inmates in administrative segregation for good behavior by allowing them to return to the general population, and (3) create humane conditions in the general population to prevent the need for administrative segregation. The response to this program showed a decrease in violence and gang activity throughout the prison. The number of inmates in administrative segregation decreased by eighty percent.
This program is no longer in place in Parchman or any prison in Mississippi. One reason for the falling conditions may be due to a loss of funding. With inadequate funding, staffing and the maintenance of facilities becomes difficult.
Parchman Prison’s program was the result of heavy litigation by prisoners who challenged the administrative segregation classification and the lack of mental health services. Following various court orders, the population in administrative segregation was reduced and violence decreased. Mental health staff worked closely with custody staff to ensure that inmates with severe mental health issues were receiving appropriate treatment and an avenue to return to the general population. These programs were monitored by the federal courts until 2011.
In addition to violence within prisons, failing to provide adequate mental health treatment for inmates who need it will cost states more after releasing inmates, through recidivism and health care costs.
Overcrowding is another cause of violence in prisons. A Mississippi health inspector recently visited a Parchman Prison housing unit and declared it unsafe for habitation due to crumbling infrastructure and unsanitary conditions, meaning that 1,500 inmates needed to be moved to adequate cells. Currently, 625 inmates still need cells.
If Mississippi wants to prevent more deaths, then it must increase funding to provide sanitary and humane conditions and adequate mental health treatment for its inmates. Failing to do so will likely cause more housing unit condemnations, overcrowding, and violence.