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Mississippi Activists Rally For Prison Reform After Recent Inmate Deaths

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Mississippi is grappling with a prison crisis that has seen at least 10 inmate deaths in less than a month. Inmates at the state penitentiary at Parchman are suing the state over what they say are unconstitutional conditions. And today, at the state capital in Jackson, hundreds of people turned out for a rally demanding change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Shut it down.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Shut it down.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Shut it down.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Shut it down.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Shut it down.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Shut it down.

CHANG: NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now from Jackson.

Hey, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: So we just heard some protesters there calling for Parchman to be shut down. Can you just catch us up on what's been going on there to demand this kind of change?

ELLIOTT: Well, just this week, three inmates at Parchman died. One was found hanged in his cell, and officials say the other two were beaten to death in an altercation with other prisoners. Now, that's on top of rioting a few weeks ago that led to other deaths and an unknown number of injuries, as well as damage to the physical facility. Family members of prisoners and former inmates today were featured at this rally, you know, describing very dangerous and decrepit conditions at Parchman.

And we should sort of describe Parchman. This is a sprawling 18,000-acre working farm. It's got seven different housing units on it. And it houses some of the maximum-security inmates in Mississippi. Over the years, health inspectors have identified problems there - things like moldy food, mildewed showers, sinks and toilets ripped from cells. C.J. Lawrence with the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition today described some of those chronic issues.

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CJ LAWRENCE: The brothers slept on the floors. The brothers slept in sewage, in rodent-infested, rat-infested - we've seen their plates. Have you seen their plates?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Yes.

LAWRENCE: Ladies and gentlemen, we can't stand for this. The state of Mississippi has been building a bomb for decades, and now they are blaming the bomb for exploding.

ELLIOTT: Now, a recurring theme at the rally today was the history of Parchman and its link to slavery. It is a former plantation in the Mississippi Delta that was converted to a prison to lease convicts after the Civil War.

CHANG: And what's been the response from state leaders so far?

ELLIOTT: Well, the governor, Republican Tate Reeves, was just sworn in last week and is acknowledging problems in the system and has launched a search for a new prison commissioner. The one who just left had been warning lawmakers for years that the prisons were understaffed and didn't have enough money to hire and keep enough guards. Reeves is the former lieutenant governor, so he's not new to this problem. He was among the budget writers, in fact, who did not allocate more money to corrections. Yesterday, he did outline some initial steps to deal with the current crisis.

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TATE REEVES: First, we're working to improve the conditions there. In a lot of places, they're not good. There's no other word for it. They're terrible.

ELLIOTT: He saw that firsthand on a tour that he took Thursday with his interim corrections commissioner, and they were able to see the same disturbing things that have been circulating on social media, images that inmates themselves have taken using contraband cellphones. And that started to get the attention of national civil rights groups, as well as the rappers Jay-Z and Yo Gotti. They're helping fund a federal lawsuit that has now been filed by more than two dozen inmates who are suing over the violent conditions, and they say they violate their constitutional rights.

CHANG: OK, so with so much attention focused on this prison now, what is happening at Parchman?

ELLIOTT: Well, Parchman is on lockdown and has been since December 29. The state has moved more than 300 inmates to a private prison and now trying to figure out where they might be able to relocate about another 600 or so inmates.

CHANG: That is NPR's Debbie Elliott.

Thank you so much, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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