Mississippi prison conditions disputed as trial starts
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Lawyers for inmates argued Monday that conditions at a Mississippi prison are unconstitutionally abusive, while the state’s lawyers said they’re proud of the prison and that inmates’ complaints don’t justify a federal judge’s intervention.
Both sides made opening arguments Monday in what could be a six-week trial examining conditions at the privately run East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Meridian. U.S. District Judge William Barbour Jr. will rule in the case, as there’s no jury.
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center want Barbour to order improvements at the prison, run by Utah-based Management and Training Corp., or MTC. Plaintiffs say medical and mental health care are substandard, the facility is overly violent, too many inmates are locked in solitary confinement, and inmates don’t even get nutritious food. Lawyer Elissa Johnson laid those failings at the feet of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, saying the state is failing to force MTC and a medical contractor to live up to their responsibilities.
“It is a bedrock constitutional principle that states must provide constitutionally adequate care,” Johnson said.
Lawyers plan to put on evidence in seven separate areas where they said the prison violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. She argued that each issue put inmates at an unacceptable risk of harm.
About 80 percent of the 1,200 inmates at the facility are under some form of mental health care. The state has designated the prison to host mentally ill inmates. Johnson said that made some practices, such as solitary confinement, particularly inappropriate.
She called the solitary confinement conditions “oppressive.”
State lawyers told Barbour that the plaintiffs can’t prove any constitutional violations. They also say MTC and the new medical contractor have made improvements.
“It’s hard to see how reasonable people can look at the same facility and come to such opposite conclusions,” said William Siler, a lawyer for the state.
Siler said that every prison has problems, but added inmates are to blame for some issues such as damaged cells or contraband weapons.
“What you see is them trying to say we need to protect the inmates from themselves,” Siler said.
State lawyer Michael Bentley said that former contractor Health Assurance, whose co-owner was convicted of bribing former Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps, provided poorer health care than the current contractor. But Bentley said what’s important is the current conditions.
“The question before your honor is not what was happening in 2013 or 2014 or 2015,” Bentley said. “The question is what is happening now.”
Bentley said plaintiffs had to prove more than isolated horror stories, but instead show that for all the inmates, prison officials are refusing treatment, ignoring complaints, or intentionally providing incorrect care. He said evidence that companies aren’t complying with their state contract or aren’t meeting professional standards isn’t enough.
“You can’t hide deliberate indifference in a facility wide class-action,” Bentley said, urging Barbour to make a planned tour of the prison on short notice. “You can’t clean it up in a day, or a week, or a month.”
Siler told Barbour Monday that he expects the entire trial to take as long as six weeks. More than a dozen lawyers were present between the plaintiffs and defendants. Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall was absent from court, with Siler saying she had gone to a hospital with symptoms of appendicitis.