ACLU files motion to dismiss suit against MDOC

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A proposed agreement has been reached to remove all inmates from the notorious Unit 32 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, which once housed death row and mentally ill inmates in conditions that prisoner advocates described as inhumane.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion Friday in U.S. District Court asking a federal judge to dismiss its lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections. MDOC has been implementing changes at Unit 32 ever since a consent decree was reached in the case in 2006, a year after the complaint was filed.

“It’s a very big and important step after these profound stages to now be emptying that place, finally,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project.

The agreement requires MDOC to transfer all the remaining inmates in Unit 32 to other housing over the next several months and ensure all inmates receive adequate medical and mental health care.

The unit had held as many as 1,000 inmates. Winter said fewer than 200 remain in Unit 32, and it’s unclear where they will be placed. The agreement requires those with serious mental illness to be housed at MDOC’s mental health facility in Meridian.

“My hope is that we will not see Unit 32 re-created somewhere else,” Winter said.

MDOC Commissioner Chris Epps was traveling Friday and couldn’t be reached immediately for comment. MDOC’s changes at the facility in recent years have pertained to health care, mental health care, the use of force and the classification of prisoners.

“We have more than complied with the agreement that we entered into with the ACLU and this dismissal is evidence of our compliance,” Epps said in a statement released through his office Friday.

The ACLU had alleged in its complaint that mentally ill inmates were sent to Unit 32 because of poor discipline, but a 23-hour-a-day confinement caused their condition to worsen. The ACLU also alleged physical abuse by guards, poor sanitary conditions and extreme heat during the summer months.

“It was one of the very worst prisons in the nation when we brought this suit. The conditions there were atrocious,” Winter said. “It was a generator for violence and mental illness.”

The ACLU will monitor the situation over the next year, and if conditions of the agreement aren’t met, the lawsuit can be restored to the court docket, Winter said.