JACKSON, Miss. – The state of Mississippi has "abandoned its responsibility to provide basic needs" to inmates at a privately run prison that is excessively violent and fails to provide proper medical care, an attorney for the prisoners said Monday.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Poverty Law Center sued the state over conditions at East Mississippi Correctional Facility, which is home to 1,200 inmates, 80 percent of whom have been diagnosed with a mental health problem.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections "receives report after report and does nothing. That is the definition of deliberate indifference," plaintiffs' attorney Erin Monju said in closing arguments.
Warden Frank Shaw testified during the five-week trial that the prison follows protocol and the facility is no worse than any other. Attorneys for the government defended the facility, including its regular use of solitary confinement.
"Coloring books and timeout isn't going to work for criminals," defense attorney William Siler said.
The prison, located outside of Meridian, is operated under a contract with the Utah-based Management and Training Corp. MTC is footing the bill of the legal defense team, but lawyers are defending the state of Mississippi. Plaintiffs say the state has been aware and complacent of the prison's unconstitutional conditions.
In a SPLC news release sent after Monday's closing arguments, Jody Owens, SPLC's managing attorney for Mississippi, said the state's Department of Corrections "allows this prison to fail at even the most fundamental tasks."
"The result is a place so dangerous and so violent that it shocks corrections experts, yet the department keeps handing taxpayer money to private companies to run the prison and its services," Owens said.
The state's attorneys said the groups suing Mississippi have an agenda and want to litigate private prisons out of business.
"We need to get out of their (MTC's) way and let them run their prison," Siler said.
Privately run prisons can be a political hot potato. Lawmakers often tout their lowered costs and better performance than state-run facilities, but opponents point to understaffing, health care cuts and a lack of transparency.
One of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' first orders in the Trump administration was to reverse an Obama-era directive phasing out the use of private prisons. It was perhaps an acknowledgement that the private prisons may be needed given the administration's aggressive enforcement of drug and immigration laws.
Several inmates testified during the trial about the conditions inside the prison. They described being jumped or shanked, sometimes in their own cells, with little help from prison guards. Such inmate violence, the warden said, is common.
"It's the nature of prisons," Shaw said. "It's the nature of the beast."
But the inmates' attorneys argued that the number of assaults at the prison is high and the result of inadequate supervision because of the prison's short-staffing. And they say guards abandon their posts and do not perform their minimum job functions.
Plaintiffs say this lack of supervision not only results in inmate assaults, but also poses a risk in the case of medical emergency. Plaintiffs say one inmate died this year after lying unconscious on the floor of his cell amid his feces and urine, as other inmates banged on the housing unit's door attempting to get medical assistance. Four other inmates have died so far this year.
Inmates regularly take extreme measures to get officers' attention — lighting their cells on fire or cutting themselves and reaching through their door's tray slot.
In one video provided as evidence by plaintiffs, guards did not respond to the scene of a cell fire until five minutes after flames could be seen from outside of the cell.
Inmate Terry Beasley, who testified in March, said he has diabetes and can go into shock and eventually die if his blood sugar drops too low. When asked by plaintiffs how he feels knowing it can take guards minutes to respond in emergency situations, Beasley began crying and said, "It's scary."
Inmates said they had seen cockroaches and mouse droppings throughout the facility, particularly in the kitchen, and had to deal with sewage backing up into cells and bathrooms.
The warden blamed the plumbing problems on inmates.
"In most cases, when we have those issues, it's inmate related. They've either flushed something down they shouldn't have or torn something up," Shaw said.
U.S. District Judge William Barbour Jr. said he planned to take "several days" to issue a written ruling.
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