The rising death toll of 15 inmates in prisons across Mississippi since December 2019 has prompted a civil rights investigation by the Justice Department, officials said.
Federal prosecutors are investigating the condition of four state prisons, including an inquiry on whether correctional officers are adequately protecting prisoners from harm. The quality of health care and suicide prevention services will also be investigated.
The civil rights division of the Justice Department, according to a statement, will examine the conditions of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, the South Mississippi Correctional Institution, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, and the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.
The death of inmates was stated to be the result of violent confrontations among inmates as well as suicides, according to the Associated Press.
Reports suggest the prisons have been suffering from lack of workforce as positions of guards remain unfilled. Department of Corrections officers said factors such as low pay, long hours, and dangerous conditions had deterred people from working as guards in the facilities.
Prisons, slavery, and deep-rooted racism
The deputy legal director for Southern Poverty Law Center, Lisa Graybill, in a statement on Wednesday, said Mississippi prisons "have a brutal history rooted in slavery and convict leasing".
"It is time for the federal government to step in and do what the Mississippi Department of Corrections has failed to: end the violence and ensure humane living conditions," Graybill said. "Dozens have died, and hundreds of others live in squalid conditions with standing sewage in freezing temperatures as a result of ... Mississippi's neglect. Mississippi's prisons are overcrowded, understaffed, and aren't safe for anyone."
Inspection by the health department also revealed poor sanitary conditions at the correctional facilities. In an inspection in Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, broken sinks and toilets, holes in cell walls, moulds, and mildew in showers and sanitation issues in the kitchen were reported.
The poor condition at the prisons has prompted A-list stars Jay-Z and rapper Yo Gotti to open a lawsuit last month in which they paid attorneys to sue the state of Mississippi on behalf of inmates due to unsatisfactory conditions at the prison. The lawsuit stated prisons are "plagued by violence", and inmates are forced to survive in dangerous conditions.