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Monitor warned about gang influence at Mississippi prison

March 13, 2018

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A compliance monitor at a privately-run prison told Mississippi officials in 2015 that gang members were “running things” in the institution.

The Clarion Ledger reports that Vernell Thomas testified Tuesday in a lawsuit over conditions at East Mississippi Correctional Facility.

In a May 5, 2015 email, Thomas wrote that “several prisoners seem to be running things, even though some are in (segregation) units.”

However, on the stand Tuesday, she said gang influence was a problem at the time, but not now. Contract compliance monitors are required at privately run Mississippi prisons under state law.

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Poverty Law Center are representing a group of inmates who say they face an unconstitutionally high risk of violence at the prison near Meridian. State officials, though, say that many of the allegations are out of date and conditions have improved. They also say some problems are attributable to inmates’ self-sabotage.

U.S. District Judge William Barbour Jr. excluded members of the public from part of Tuesday’s testimony, citing the sensitivity of the matter and inmates mentioned by name.

Before the hearing was closed, plaintiff’s lawyers introduced emails in which Thomas wrote that gang members assigned to segregation units were being allowed to work outside those units unsupervised.

“These are 10 offenders who have been calling the shots/running the offenders/staff here with the ability to move almost anywhere they want to go,” she wrote in an Oct. 14, 2015, email.

One inmate on the segregation unit “still runs things and staff,” she wrote. “He even questions me.”

When she removed a broom from the pod, she wrote that he replied, “You must not know who I am.”

Another inmate, serving a life sentence for murder, maintained “control even though he’s supposed to be locked down constantly,” she wrote.

Thomas wanted the gang members transferred to other prisons.

Other emails and reports by Thomas detailed continuing problems with understaffing, dirtiness, poor lighting and leaving out mops and broomsticks that could be used as weapons.

Inmates have testified about unsanitary conditions, poor health care and poor mental health care. About 80 percent of the 1,200 inmates at East Mississippi are under some form of mental health care.

Of the 97 reports Thomas filed between 2014 and 2017, 88 cited inmates covering up their doors and windows.

Asked if it’s a security risk for the windows to be covered, Thomas said it is. She testified that she asked inmates to take down coverings as she inspected, “and they put them right back up.”


Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com

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