October 2, 2022

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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks on Findings that Conditions at Mississippi State Penitentiary Violate the Constitution

15 min read

Remarks as Prepared

Good afternoon. I am joined by Clay Joyner, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Mississippi, and Darren LaMarca, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi.

We are here today to announce that the Department of Justice has completed a thorough investigation of conditions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (also known as Parchman). We conducted the investigation under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. Based upon our investigation, we conclude that there is reasonable cause to believe that conditions at Parchman constitute a pattern or practice of violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The constitutional violations include uncontrolled violence between incarcerated persons, inadequate mental health treatment and suicide prevention measures, and over-reliance on restrictive housing, also known as “solitary confinement”, in a manner that endangers physical and mental health. These conditions have resulted in 10 homicides and 12 suicides at Parchman since 2019.

The department has issued a written report explaining its conclusions and identifying the minimum remedial measures necessary to correct the constitutional violations. We have shared our 59-page report with Mississippi officials, and we will make it available to the public.

Established in 1901, Parchman is located in Sunflower County, Mississippi, within the Mississippi Delta, and is the State’s oldest prison. Parchman’s incarcerated population is nearly 2,000. “Black Mississippians account for 70% of Parchman’s incarcerated population, while making up 37% of the state’s population.”

The Supreme Court has said: “There is no iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country.” Under the Eighth Amendment, prison officials have a constitutional obligation to ensure reasonable care and safety for individuals under their supervision. No one’s sentence should include deliberate indifference by prison officials that leads to death or serious harm. The Constitution safeguards the inherent dignity of every human being, including those serving time in our prisons and jails.

The foundation of the Justice Department’s work to improve public safety is, and always has been, community trust. Unconstitutional conditions of confinement in our country’s state and local prisons and jails breach that trust, which is why the department is committed to investigating conditions and practices within these institutions when and where warranted. Currently, the department is enforcing 13 settlements concerning conditions in adult jails and prisons, including 10 consent decrees. We are engaged in litigation against Alabama over the constitutionality of conditions in its prisons for men, and just last year, we opened new investigations into state prisons in Georgia and five juvenile facilities in Texas.

The importance of the department’s work in remedying unconstitutional conditions of confinement is significant and far-reaching. Over two million people currently reside in our nation’s prisons and jails. People of color and those with mental illness are disproportionately represented among them. Indeed, one study observed that mental illness and substance use disorders “represents a substantial component of the public health burden of mass incarceration,” which is driven by “structural inequalities in race, class, law enforcement, health care and social services.

My colleagues will discuss the specific findings about Parchman in greater detail, but as a result of our team’s investigation, we have concluded that the conditions at Parchman are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision, which has resulted in serious harm and a substantial risk of serious harm to persons confined at the prison. For example, our report details that on Dec. 31, 2019, just hours before midnight, a fight in Parchman’s Unit 29 sparked what would become a prison riot lasting several weeks. In the months leading up to the riot, there had been widespread reports about unlivable and unsanitary conditions throughout Parchman; violent murders and suicides on the rise; staffing plummeting to dangerous levels; and mounting concerns that gangs were filling the void left by inadequate staff presence and gaining increasing control of Parchman through extortion and violence. Despite notice of these issues, records show the Parchman staff that was caught off guard by the riot and ultimately was unable to adequately and quickly respond. The aftermath revealed that five individuals incarcerated at Parchman had been murdered, and three others committed suicide during the month of January 2020 alone.

As another example, many persons incarcerated at Parchman spend months and even years in restrictive housing under egregious environmental conditions. We found the conditions in restrictive housing pose a substantial risk of serious harm from psychological deterioration for all persons confined in restrictive housing for prolonged periods of time. This is the first time the department has concluded that a prison’s use of restricted housing violated the constitutional rights of persons without serious mental illness. My colleagues will share more information about this and related findings, in their remarks.

We want to acknowledge and thank Mississippi officials for cooperating with our investigation. Our goal is to try to reach a consensual resolution with Mississippi on the actions necessary to address the constitutional violations we have identified.  

Our investigation of three other Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) facilities, (Southern Mississippi Correctional Institute, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility), remains ongoing.

I will now turn it over to Clay Joyner, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Mississippi, and Darren LaMarca, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, for their remarks.

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