Free Mississippi Movement

From: Free Alabama – Mississippi Movement Blogtalk Radio Show:

Please listen to the recording of August 8th FREE ALABAMA-MISSISSIPPI MOVEMENT’S blogtalkradio show as we continue our “HANDS OFF OF OUR WOMEN AT TUTWILER” series ahead of our “MARCH ON TUTWILER” AND rally at the State Capitol on August 23, 2014, beginning at 11 a.m.

Also, we will get an update on our FAMILY… in Georgia, and learn about new developments and oppressive tactics that are being carried out by the State against the Men and Women who want their FREEDOM over there also.

“MISSISSIPPI BROWN” will be back again and we look forward to another great show.

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Listen To Social Networking Internet Radio Stations with 63945 on BlogTalkRadio

Mississippi takes historic step to reform criminal justice system | Southern Poverty Law Center

Mississippi takes historic step to reform criminal justice system | Southern Poverty Law Center

By Jody Owens II, Managing Attorney – Mississippi

As the managing attorney for the SPLC’s Mississippi office, I’ve seen the terrible toll the state’s broken criminal justice system has taken on its communities.

The state has the shameful distinction of having the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation – ranking behind only Louisiana, according to the Department of Justice. The last decade has seen Mississippi’s prison population grow by 17 percent to more than 22,000 prisoners last year.

Many prisoners aren’t hardened, violent criminals. Nearly three-quarters of the people entering Mississippi prisons in 2012, in fact, were nonviolent offenders, according to a task force that examined the state’s prisons. And the system fails them: Almost one in three nonviolent offenders are back behind bars within three years of their release. These statistics paint a grim future of a state with a skyrocketing prison population that costs taxpayers, communities and the people caught in this broken system dearly.

This morning, I was pleased to witness Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant sign groundbreaking reforms into law that can help repair this broken system. As a member of the task force that issued recommendations for reform, I can attest that these reforms address many longstanding issues. They help protect our communities from violent offenders but take steps to prevent low-level offenders from returning to prison.

Read the rest here.

Mississippi to end century-old program of conjugal visits for prisoners

From the Globe and Mail, Jan. 16, 2014: 
“That’s the only time when we get to see each other and we don’t have somebody telling us that we’re too close or that our hug lasted too long,” said Kelly Muscolino, 35. “We need that bond.”
Once a common practice in prisons across the country, soon only California, New Mexico, Washington and New York state prisons will permit conjugal visits. Federal prisons do not allow them.
… “I have a good job,” she said. “I take care of my children.” Conjugal visits provide more than sex, inmates’ spouses said. They offer a chance “to talk and comfort one another like any other husband and wife,” Mason said.
Read the rest here. 

America’s 10 Worst Prisons: Walnut Grove

This is from the series in MotherJones Magazine

“A picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”

—By James Ridgeway and Jean Casella
May. 13, 2013

Serving time in prison is not supposed to be pleasant. Nor, however, is it supposed to include being raped by fellow prisoners or staff, beaten by guards for the slightest provocation, driven mad by long-term solitary confinement, or killed off by medical neglect. These are the fates of thousands of prisoners every year—men, women, and children housed in lockups that give Gitmo and Abu Ghraib a run for their money.

While there’s plenty of blame to go around, and while not all of the facilities described in this series have all of the problems we explore, some stand out as particularly bad actors. We’ve compiled this subjective list of America’s 10 worst lockups (plus a handful of dishonorable mentions) based on three years of research, correspondence with prisoners, and interviews with criminal-justice reform advocates concerning the penal facilities with the grimmest claims to infamy.

We will roll out the final contenders this week, complete with photos and video. Number 9 is a corporate-run facility where children allegedly have been subjected to a heartrending pattern of brutal beatings, rapes, and isolation.

Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (Leake County, Mississippi)

Number of prisoners: Capacity 1,450 (actual population in flux)

Who’s in charge: (current) Lawrence Mack, warden; (former) George Zoley, CEO, the GEO Group; Christopher B. Epps, commissioner, Mississippi Department of Corrections

The basics: Efforts are underway to clean up and clear out Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, which one federal judge called “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts” visited upon children as young as 13. For years, the kids at Walnut Grove were subjected to a gauntlet of physical and sexual assaults, and psychological abuse including long-term solitary confinement. All of this took place under the management of private prison conglomerate the GEO Group.

The backlash: Evidence gathered for a report by the Justice Department and a lawsuit by the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center “paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world,” Federal District Judge Carleton Reeves wrote in a 2012 court order. The court found that conditions at Walnut Grove violated the Constitution, not to mention state and federal civil and criminal laws. Guards regularly had sex with their young charges and the facility’s pattern of “brutal” rapes among prisoners was the worst of “any facility anywhere in the nation” (court’s emphasis). Guards also were deemed excessively violent—beating, kicking, and punching “handcuffed and defenseless” youths and frequently subjecting them to chemical restraints such as pepper spray, even for insignificant infractions.

The guards also sold drugs on site and staged “gladiator-style” fights. “It’d be like setting up a fight deal like you would with two dogs,” one former resident told NPR. “They actually bet on it. It was payday for the guards.” Said another: “A lot of times, the guards are in the same gang. If the inmates wanted something done, they got it. If they wanted a cell popped open to handle some business about fighting or something like that, it just pretty much happened.” Kids who complained or tried to report these incidents faced harsh retribution, including long stints in solitary.

Judge Reeves wrote that the state had turned a blind eye to the prison company’s abuses: Walnut Grove’s charges, “some of whom are mere children, are at risk every minute, every hour, every day.” In accord with a court decree, the facility’s youngest residents have been moved to a state-run juvenile facility, and Mississippi canceled its contract with GEO—which still runs some 65 prisons nationwide. The contract was handed over to another private prison company, Management and Training Corporation, which also has been a target of criticism for advocates of criminal justice reform.

Also read:The Lost Boys,” about what happens when you put kids in an adult isolation facility.

Watch: Local news report on a protest by Walnut Grove parents.

On death row now for over a decade, Jeffrey Havard fights wrongful conviction and death sentence by Mississippi state

This is reblogged from Lockup Reform:
April 22nd 2013

The 2002 conviction of Jeffrey Havard reeks of WRONGFUL in a really bad, alarming sort of way. The kind of way that caused me to wonder if at this moment I was somehow involved in some sort of freak situation that could earn me a wrongful conviction, landing me in solitary confinement on death row for years on end, all due to some outrageous misinterpretation or spinning of facts as they occurred—all completely out of my control.

I was not familiar with Havard’s case until a colleague and friend, Lori Howard (@LoriHoward16), who is a relentless advocate for the wrongfully convicted (she’s got a one-track mind and a drive I envy, which she claims materialized after coming this close to catching a serious wrongful conviction case of her own five years ago), started sharing bits and pieces of his story with me. Her devotion to freeing Havard inspired me to examine the facts for myself, so guided by Lori, I started reading and reading on the case.

I advocate for criminal justice reform and prisoners’ rights in my own work, but really focus my efforts on people held in prolonged solitary confinement, so this was new territory for me. But as I started processing the information, the facts and the countless stories on Havard, I was appalled. If you’re not familiar with Jeffrey Havard’s case, Bruce Fischer provides a good background on GroundReport. Or here’s the real quick and dirty of it (as posted on the official Free Jeffrey Havard Facebook page):


Backtracking to 2002 when Havard was convicted, it’s important to note two important details, each of which unquestionably impacted the outcome of his case, facilitating Mississippi state’s determination that he is no longer worthy of life. As reported in a recent story on WAPT News:

Former state Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz said Hayne’s testimony that Havard shook the baby to death went unchallenged because the public defender couldn’t afford a second exam. 

He was denied the use of his own expert in that case, but they allowed the state to proffer Dr. Hayne as an expert for the state,” said Diaz, who served on the Mississippi Supreme Court from 2000 to 2008.

With these injustices in mind, new information and details have continued to surface in connection with the original evidence incriminating Havard, which has from the start been perceived by many as dubious at best (not even). Recently there has been increased media attention to the already well known, controversial case, including a story published yesterday by The Clarion-Ledger, from which I quote liberally throughout this post:

Mississippi death row inmate Jeffrey Havard recently filed a petition in federal court requesting relief from his capital murder conviction and death sentence, claiming they are a “violation of numerous of constitutional rights.”

Havard was convicted in [2002] in Natchez for sexual battery and murder of his then girlfriend’s daughter, 6-month-old Chloe Britt. He admits accidentally dropping her but denies sexually abusing and killing her…

Attached to Havard’s petition is an appendix including 10 media reports by The Clarion-Ledger’s Jerry Mitchell, The New York Times, Huffington Post, CNN, InjusticeAnywhere.com and others.

Now the flimsy evidence used to build a case against Havard—the same evidence on which the great state of Mississippi based its conviction and death sentence of a young man—has been further discredited. As stated by The Clarion-Ledger:

Since the conviction, questions about the autopsy and testimony of pathologist Dr. Steven Hayne, who performed the autopsy, have been brought to light by a number of local and national media outlets…

At trial Hayne testified the death was a homicide, consistent with shaken baby syndrome, and that an anal contusion was “consistent with penetration of the rectum with an object.”
But Hayne has since acknowledged to Havard’s attorneys the contusion was found in an area easily injured and a rectal thermometer like the one used in the emergency room to check the child’s temperature could cause such a contusion but that he did not think it was likely.

Hayne conducted autopsies for the state from the late 1980s and the late 2000s. He was removed from a list of approved forensic pathologists in 2008.

And now I give props to the good people at The Clarion-Ledger for their huge show of support and efforts to finally get Havard the trial he should have had over a decade ago:

At The Clarion-Ledger’s request, world-renowned pathologist Dr. Michael Baden examined Hayne’s autopsy report and photographs and concluded there was no evidence of sexual abuse – or even of a homicide.

The outcome of the new examination? I was very pleased but not surprised at Baden’s conclusions:

The injuries described at autopsy were consistent with “the baby being accidentally dropped and striking her head on the toilet tank as the father described,” Baden said.
The anal abrasion described in the autopsy can be the result of common causes, such as constipation, diarrhea, toilet paper or even rubbing against a diaper, he said.

Wrapping up, The Clarion-Ledger concludes:

Havard‘s 169-page petition and request for a speedy trial was filed March 29. Havard told The Natchez Democrat the trial unfairly asked him to testify about the dilation of the child’s body [which, according to Havard intermediary Lori Howard, put the burden of proof to explain the dilation on Havard].
“The burden [of proof] was improperly placed on me to explain their predicate for why they thought there was sexual battery,” Havard told Reporter Vershal Hogan in a phone interview from the Mississippi State Penitentiary.

Havard also reportedly said the hospital personnel were not qualified under the law to speak about sexual abuse.

“The (emergency room) staffs were allowed to say things that were expert opinions. The only person who was tendered to give expert opinion – (Hayne) – was never asked to give his opinion,” Havard said.

Adams County District Attorney Ronnie Harper told The Democrat he thought the testimony of the hospital personnel was based on personal observations, and they did not have to be tendered as experts.

In his latest petition, Havard asks the court for relief of the original conviction and sentence, also requesting “at the very least,” permission to produce evidence raised in the petition during a proposed evidenciary hearing in federal court. I’d be hard-pressed to find a reason to deny his hard-earned requests, already paid for in full by Havard personally with over a decade of his life, wasted in the bowels of Mississippi’s penal system—in solitary confinement and on death row, likely wondering if his only ticket out of the hellhole in which Mississippi currently holds him is his own death.

To stay current on unfolding developments in Jeffrey Havard’s fight for his life and freedom from the clenches of Mississippi’s penal system and death row:

1) Periodically check Free Jeffrey Havard and Jeffrey Havard’s blog
2) Follow @FreeJeffKHavar on Twitter  and “Like” https://www.facebook.com/FreeJeffreyHavard on Facebook
If you support Jeffrey Havard, think he should be granted a new trial and want to see his face added to the Faces of Innocence collage below, please be sure to sign the Change.org petition calling on  United States District Judge Keith Starrett to Grant Jeffrey Havard a New Trial! 

Mississippi’s incarcaration rate continues to climb, straining finances

From: Gulf Live, Mississippi Press
Jan. 10th 2013

JACKSON, Mississippi — As Mississippi enters the second half of the current fiscal year, Mississippi’s prison population continues to increase and shows no signs of abating, according to a news release from the state Department of Corrections.
During 2011, the number of prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities declined by 0.9%, from 1,613,803 to 1,598,780, but not in Mississippi.
Mississippi has increased its inmate population by over 1,000 in the past two years:
• July 1, 2012 – 22,023 inmates, an increase of 716 from July 1, 2011
• July 1, 2011 – 21,307 inmates, an increase of 382 from July 1, 2010
• July 1, 2010 – 20,925 inmates
According to the United States Department of Justice – Bureau of Justice Statistics, only three states — Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma — have incarceration rates at or above 650 per 100,000 residents. Mississippi is second only to Louisiana in incarceration rates. 
Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with over 1.5 million men and women living behind bars.

Inmate pleads guilty, second charged, in Mississippi prison riot

By HOLBROOK MOHR Associated Press
Posted September 7, 2012
In: The Commercial Appeal, TN

JACKSON — One inmate has pleaded guilty to participating in a deadly prison riot in Mississippi, while a second prisoner has been charged in the case.

One guard was killed and 20 people were injured in the May 20 riot at the privately-run Adams County Correctional Facility in Natchez, which holds illegal immigrants convicted of crimes in the U.S.

Yoany Oriel Serrano-Bejarano was charged Tuesday. A complaint filed by an FBI agent says he assaulted a guard and helped other inmates climb onto the roof of a building where correction officer Catlin Carithers was beaten to death.

The affidavit says prisoners took food service carts out of the dining hall and kitchen and stacked them on top of each other to climb onto the roof where Carithers was assaulted.

“Serrano-Bejarano has been identified as one of the inmates who held the food carts so the inmates could access the roof,” the complaint says.

The court documents also say Serrano-Bejarano assaulted a different guard, was seen with a prison guard’s radio, and destroyed cameras and windows.

Serrano-Bejarano is at least the second inmate charged in the case. Court records did not list an attorney for him.

Juan Lopez-Fuentes pleaded guilty to participating in the riot during a hearing Aug. 27 in U.S. District Court in Natchez. He faces up to 10 years in prison at sentencing on Nov. 19. Lopez-Fuentes was charged with leading a group of inmates who took hostages in one section of the prison. He forced one of the hostages to relay orders for tactical teams to drop their weapons and back off, according to court records in his case.

Lopez-Fuentes was serving time for two previous felonies at the time and was facing deportation.

The FBI affidavit doesn’t say why Serrano-Bejarano was being held in the prison, though it says he was released Aug. 28 and turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs enforcement for deportation. The criminal charge will allow authorities to hold him pending the outcome of the case.

Court records say the prisoners were angry about their treatment the day the riot erupted.

The prison holds nearly 2,500 illegal immigrants, most of them convicted on charges of coming back to the U.S. after being deported. The prison is owned by Nashville-based Corrections Corp. of America, one of the nation’s largest private prison companies.

The FBI says in court records that the riot was started by a group of Mexican inmates, known as Paisas, who were angry about what they considered poor food and medical care and disrespectful guards. Paisas are a loosely affiliated group within the prison, without ties to organized gangs, FBI spokeswoman Deborah Madden has said.

It took hours for authorities to control the riot, which grew to involve hundreds of inmates and caused an estimated $1.3 million in damage.

Read the rest here

It would be good to know from other sources what happened.

Meridian Schools Violated Student Rights In Mississippi, Arrested Students Without Probable Cause, Feds Say

By HOLBROOK MOHR 08/10/12 05:40 PM ET AP

Via: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/11/feds-student-rights-viola_n_1768306.html

Meridian Mississippi Schools

JACKSON, Miss. — Officials in east Mississippi operate a “school-to-prison pipeline” that incarcerates students for disciplinary infractions as minor as dress code violations with a policy that affects mostly black and disabled children, the U.S. Justice Department said Friday.

The Justice Department said police in the city of Meridian routinely arrest public school students without determining if there’s probable cause when the school wants to press charges for a violation. Federal authorities say the students are then denied due process in youth court and on probation. The Justice Department did not outline specific allegations of wrongdoing against the school district in a letter to state and local authorities. Instead, it appears from the letter that the problems begin once a student is arrested.

Once arrested, the youth court puts the students on probation, sometimes without proper legal representation, according to the letter. If the students are on probation, future school violations could be considered a probation violation that requires them “to serve any suspensions from school incarcerated in the juvenile detention center,” the department said.

That means if a student is on probation and then gets suspended for a minor infraction like “dress code violations, flatulence, profanity, and disrespect,” the student could have to serve that suspension in the detention center.

“The students most severely affected by these practices are black children and children with disabilities in Meridian,” the Justice Department said.

The Justice Department made the allegations in a letter to Mississippi’s governor, attorney general and various officials in Meridian and Lauderdale County.

“These entities, working in conjunction, help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline that routinely and repeatedly incarcerates children for school disciplinary infractions,” the letter said.

The department said if the matter isn’t corrected soon it will sue the Lauderdale County Youth Court, the Meridian Police Department and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services, a division of the state Department of Human Services. The Division of Youth Services is involved the probation system.

“The systematic disregard for children’s basic constitutional rights by agencies with a duty to protect and serve these children betrays the public trust,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “We hope to resolve the concerns outlined in our findings in a collaborative fashion, but we will not hesitate to take appropriate legal action if necessary.”

The police department referred questions to a city spokesman, who didn’t immediately return a call. The governor’s office, the youth court and DHS didn’t immediately comment on the letter. The school district superintendent didn’t immediately respond to a message.

The letter said the findings are the result of an eight-month investigation. The letter also said that Lauderdale County Youth Court Judges Frank Coleman and Veldore “Vel” Young pledged to cooperate in the investigation, but “consistently denied DOJ access to information about the policies and practices” of the court and directed the city of Meridian to deny the department access to files concerning children.

A Wave of Prisoner Resistance Sweeps the South

“We’re tired of being treated like animals.”

By Jen Waller andThomas Hintze
Waging Nonviolence, via: http://www.indypendent.org/2012/06/01/wave-prisoner-resistance-sweeps-south
Thanks to: The Real Cost of Prisons

June 1, 2012

Last week, prisoners in two different facilities in the United States resisted inhumane conditions — one through an uprising that the mainstream media dubbed a “riot,” and the other through a hunger strike. The tactics employed by the two groups differ, but the messages are clearly linked: Prisoners are protesting their conditions and are willing to put their lives on the line to fight for better treatment.

On May 20, inmates took control of the Adams County Correctional Facility in Mississippi for over eight hours. One inmate managed to access a cell phone during the uprising and called WLBT TV in Jackson, proving his presence in the prison by sending pictures. He gave the station the following statement: “They beat us; we’re just [paying] them back. We just need better treatment and services. We need medical attention. We just want some respect. They call us wetbacks” — referring to a racist slur used against undocumented immigrants.

The prison is privately owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which manages over 60 facilities and touts a capacity of 90,000 beds. The prison in Adams County is populated by immigrants from over 70 countries awaiting deportation and is part of a larger war on undocumented immigrants in the United States. 2011 was a record year for deportations: 396,000 people were removed from the country, and more than half of those people were convicted of crimes and held at private immigration detention facilities like the one in Adams County.

During the uprising, one guard was killed, and several guards and inmates were injured. Over two dozen guards were reportedly held hostage. The prisoners were subdued by SWAT teams, which dropped pepper spray grenades and tear gas bombs into the facility. Before it was quashed, more than 600 of about 2,500 total inmates were reportedly involved in the takeover.

The mainstream media, much like the prison officials themselves, have sought to silence the grievances that motivated the uprising. Nearly every headline has emphasized images of violence, tumult, disorder. Many news outlets claimed that a gang fight started the revolt, yet they fail to explain how a clash between rival gangs could result in an apparently unified uprising with clear demands.

The nature of the uprising and the death of a prison guard in the midst of it have given the media a pretext to ignore the massive violence and brutality that prisoners suffer across the country every single day. The incident is also symptomatic of the fact that the privatization of prisons like the one in Adams County means a lack of oversight and responsibility, which results in inhumane conditions for inmates. The Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance has received numerous complaints about the conditions of this CCA facilitity and many others, with reports of beatings, overcrowding, substandard food and lack of proper medical care, among other grievances. These are precisely the kinds of problems that were cited by those who took matters into their own hands in Mississippi by mounting an occupation.

Meanwhile, 45 prisoners at Red Onion State Prison in Wise County, Virginia were plotting another kind of resistance: a hunger strike, which they launched on May 22. With the help of a network of prisoner-support activists in the area, the hunger strikers released 10 demands and a press advisory. Among these demands were such basics as fully-cooked food and access to fresh fruit and vegetables, access to complaint and grievance forms, an end to torture in the form of indefinite segregation, and adequate medical care. Five hundred of the 1,700 inmates at Red Onion — Virginia’s only “supermax” prison — spend 23 hours a day in isolation. Inmates at Red Onion have also reported being beaten by guards and bitten by dogs.

Prisoner hunger strikes like this have been growing in frequency. Just in the past year, hunger strikes have happened at the Ohio State Penitentiary, the Corcoran State Prison, Pelican Bay State Prison, Ironwood State Prison, Kern Valley State Prison and more. Prisoners around the world are also choosing to resist by hunger striking, most notably the 2,500-strong Palestinian prisoner hunger strike that went on for weeks and was ultimately hailed as a victory. As we write, there are prisoners fasting in resistance in Dubai, Morocco, Egypt and, earlier this week, a 110-day hunger strike ended in Bahrain.

On Tuesday, a flurry of articles, including one in The Washington Post, ran with headlines claiming that the hunger strike at Red Onion prison had ended. In order for the state to officially recognize a hunger strike, inmates must reject their meals for nine consecutive days, which Virginia Department of Corrections Director Harold Clarke said they had not. In response to the news, activists with the group Solidarity with Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers issued a response challenging the validity of the DOC’s statements:

There has been a history of organizing at this prison to protest the inhumane conditions since the opening of the prison. Because it was the prisoners themselves who put their bodies on the line to call attention to injustices at Red Onion, it should be the prisoners to whom we listen over the press releases of the Virginia Department of Correction. Given that the VA DOC both failed to acknowledge the hunger strike at the onset and engaged in sending out misinformation, their version of events is suspect.

At Red Onion, one of the hunger strikers’ representatives denounced the inhumanity of the prison:

We’re tired of being treated like animals. There are only two classes at this prison: the oppressor and the oppressed. We, the oppressed, despite divisions of sexual preference, gang affiliation, race and religion, are coming together. We are rival gang members but now are united as revolutionaries.

Those affirmative words echo a rich and varying legacy of prisoner resistance that is all but forgotten in the American consciousness. Perhaps the most famous prison uprising in U.S. history was the Attica rebellion of 1971, when prisoners took control of the facility in upstate New York for five days before Governor Nelson Rockefeller approved a military siege. Thirty-one prisoners were killed, and nine guards died in the hail of bullets used to quash the occupation. Yet, over the course of those five days, the prisoners at Attica built a sense of community, about which one black prisoner later said, “I never thought whites could really get it on … But I can’t tell you what the yard was like, I actually cried it was so close, everyone so together.”

As the speaker from Attica and the representative at Red Onion State Prison both allude to, it is when divides of race, identity, and affiliation start to break down that prisoners are empowered to seek better conditions and more rights. These struggles also depend on those on the outside who show solidarity and help to spread awareness of the prisoners’ grievances. Supporters of the Red Onion hunger strike are organizing through their website and an online petition. The San Francisco Bay View has posted a further list of ways people can support the Red Onion revolutionaries. Inmates are putting their lives in danger to fight for meaningful change in a brutal system, but without people outside the prisons echoing them, their cries can continue being silenced and ignored.
——-
http://virginiaprisonstrike.blogspot.com/

This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

http://www.indypendent.org/2012/06/01/wave-prisoner-resistance-sweeps-south

Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity

From: New York Times

CHANGED ATTITUDES Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of
corrections, said he used to believe that difficult inmates should be locked
down as tightly as possible, for as long as possible. “That was the culture,
and I was part of it,” he said.

By ERICA GOODE
Published: March 10, 2012

PARCHMAN, Miss. — The heat was suffocating, and the inmates locked alone in
cells in Unit 32, the state’s super-maximum-security prison, wiped away
sweat as they lay on concrete slab beds.

Josh Anderson for The New York Times

One of the 12-foot-by-7 ½-foot solitary cells in Unit 32 of the Mississippi
State Penitentiary.

Kept in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours each day, allowed out only
in shackles and escorted by guards, they were restless and angry — made more
so by the excrement-smeared walls, the insects, the filthy food trays and
the mentally ill inmates who screamed in the night, conditions that a judge
had already ruled unacceptable.

So it was not really surprising when violence erupted in 2007: an inmate
stabbed to death with a homemade spear that May; in June, a suicide; in July
another stabbing; in August, a prisoner killed by a member of a rival gang.

What was surprising was what happened next. Instead of tightening
restrictions further, prison officials loosened them.

They allowed most inmates out of their cells for hours each day. They built
a basketball court and a group dining area. They put rehabilitation programs
in place and let prisoners work their way to greater privileges.
In response, the inmates became better behaved. Violence went down. The
number of prisoners in isolation dropped to about 300 from more than 1,000.
So many inmates were moved into the general population of other prisons that
Unit 32 was closed in 2010, saving the state more than $5 million.
The transformation of the Mississippi prison has become a focal point for a
growing number of states that are rethinking the use of long-term isolation
and re-evaluating how many inmates really require it, how long they should
be kept there and how best to move them out. Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Ohio
and Washington State have been taking steps to reduce the number of
prisoners in long-term isolation; others have plans to do so. On Friday,
officials in California announced a plan for policy changes that could
result in fewer prisoners being sent to the state’s three
super-maximum-security units.

The efforts represent an about-face to an approach that began three decades
ago, when corrections departments — responding to increasing problems with
prison gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding and the
“get tough on crime” demands of legislators — began removing ever larger
numbers of inmates from the general population. They placed them in special
prisons designed to house inmates in long-term isolation or in other types
of segregation.

At least 25,000 prisoners — and probably tens of thousands more, criminal
justice experts say — are still in solitary confinement in the United States
Some remain there for weeks or months; others for years or even decades.
More inmates are held in solitary confinement here than in any other
democratic nation, a fact highlighted in a United Nations report last week.
Humanitarian groups have long argued that solitary confinement has
devastating psychological effects, but a central driver in the recent shift
is economics. Segregation units can be two to three times as costly to build
and, because of their extensive staffing requirements, to operate as
conventional prisons are. They are an expense that many recession-plagued
states can ill afford; Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois announced plans late last
month to close the state’s supermax prison for budgetary reasons.
Some officials have also been persuaded by research suggesting that
isolation is vastly overused and that it does little to reduce overall
prison violence. Inmates kept in such conditions, most of whom will
eventually be released, may be more dangerous when they emerge, studies
suggest.

Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections, said he
found his own views changing as he fought an American Civil Liberties Union
lawsuit over conditions in the prison, which one former inmate described as
“hell, an insane asylum.”

Mr. Epps said he started out believing that difficult inmates should be
locked down as tightly as possible, for as long as possible.
“That was the culture, and I was part of it,” he said.
By the end of the process, he saw things differently and ordered the changes

“If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave,”
he now says.

A Very Costly Experiment
James F. Austin held up the file of an inmate in Unit 32 and posed a
question to the staff members gathered in a conference room at the
Mississippi Department of Corrections headquarters in Jackson.
“O.K., does this guy really need to be there?” he asked.

It was June 2007, and the department was under pressure to make
court-ordered improvements to conditions at Unit 32, where violence was
brewing. Dr. Austin, a prison consultant, had been called in by the state.
As the discussion proceeded, the staff members were startled to discover
that many inmates in Unit 32 had been sent there not because they were
highly dangerous, but because they were a nuisance — they had disobeyed
orders, had walked away from a minimum-security program or were low-level
gang members with no history of causing trouble while incarcerated.

—-
Scott Shane contributed reporting from Washington.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 18, 2012

An article last Sunday about states that are rethinking the use of long-term solitary confinement misidentified the office held by Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections, in the American Correctional Association. He is president-elect, not president. (Daron Hall is the current president; Mr. Epps takes over in 2013.)