JACKSON — Betty Turner dreaded what her son would face in the state penitentiary in Parchman, the Mississippi Delta prison that has, over the course of more than a century, earned a dark and near-mythic reputation for cruelty and institutional racism. Her fears were realized when he described meals of just a slice of bologna with a packet of mustard, sightings of rats and mold, and nights spent on a mat on a cold, damp floor.
But over the last week, such worries have come to feel almost trifling, as Mississippi’s state prisons have exploded with gang warfare, riots, disorder and killing. Five inmates have died, three of them slain at Parchman. Two inmates escaped.
Now Turner’s son, 27 and serving a 15-year sentence related to an armed robbery, is wondering whether he will survive.
“When my child tells me he’s afraid — and he’s not the type to be afraid,” said Turner, her voice trailing off. “That’s a problem.”
Department of Corrections officials responded to last week’s crisis with a systemwide lockdown affecting all of Mississippi’s roughly 19,000 inmates. The lockdown was lifted for some regional facilities Tuesday, and the two escaped inmates have been apprehended. But there remains a sense that Mississippi must now reckon with a disaster that has been a long time coming.
“You’ve heard the saying, pressure busts pipes,” said Benny Ivey, who spent more than a decade as an inmate in Mississippi prisons and now advocates on behalf of prisoners.
“This was gang violence — it’s the fact of the matter,” he added. “But also the fact of the matter, if you ain’t treated like animals, you won’t act like an animal. They’re people, man. They’re our loved ones. They are our brothers, our uncles, our daddies, our grandfathers.”
This week, Representative Bennie G. Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, and a roster of state civil rights groups asked the Justice Department to open a civil rights investigation into the state’s prison system. In a 23-page letter, they described “extreme” staff vacancies despite the third-highest incarceration rate in the country.
The letter also described a long record of violence, escapes, uprisings, inadequate health care, and institutions where criminal gangs are tolerated. At one prison, the letter noted, gang members who dominate the kitchen withhold food to punish disfavored prisoners and control who gets a mattress or blanket.
The recent burst of violence almost ensures that the longstanding problems in the state’s prison system will take center stage as the Republican-dominated Legislature begins a new session this month and as the state’s governor-elect, Tate Reeves, prepares for his Tuesday inauguration.
It potentially also raises new questions about how far red-state conservatives, who have been open to a changing approach to criminal justice in recent years, are willing to go in embracing the concept without betraying their law-and-order principles.
Among the first tasks facing Reeves, who is white, will be finding a new commissioner of the corrections department.
Representatives for Reeves’s transition office declined to comment Wednesday, but Reeves has said in recent days that he had been briefed by prison officials and called restoring order the highest priority. “Then, we need answers and justice,” he said in a post on Twitter, adding, “There is much work to be done in our correctional system.”
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the prison population in Mississippi grew by 300 percent between 1983 and 2013, to more than 22,000 inmates.
In 2014, the Legislature passed ambitious, bipartisan and widely lauded changes to sentencing and corrections laws. Just over a year ago, President Trump, who is seeking to reduce the federal prison population, cited Mississippi as a model and praised the “fantastic job” state officials had done.
The 2014 changes and others that followed have helped bring Mississippi’s inmate population down to its current level of about 19,000 inmates, said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. But Johnson, a former federal prosecutor, said that much more needed to be done.