mass incarceration

The Justice Department Investigates Mississippi Prisons

The Central Mississippi Correctional Facility.
The Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. Photo: Rogelio V Solis/AP/Shutterstock

The Justice Department announced on Wednesday an investigation into four Mississippi prisons: the Southern Mississippi Correctional Institute, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, and the Mississippi State Penitentiary, known as Parchman Farm. All have experienced a dramatic uptick in violence since December 29, with a total of 13 inmates dead, including nine at Parchman alone. Officials have attributed the deaths — which include three suicides and several murders — to a surge in gang violence, aggravated by understaffing and inhumane conditions like scant running water, rampant vermin, and a dearth of accommodations, forcing prisoners to sleep on concrete floors with no mattresses. Advocates have called for increased funding; some have banded together and filed a lawsuit. The DOJ intends to determine whether “the Mississippi Department of Corrections adequately protects prisoners from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners at the four prisons,” and “whether there is adequate suicide prevention, including adequate mental health care and appropriate use of isolation, at Parchman.”

The answer to all the above is clearly “no.” Precedent for the investigation includes last year’s look at prison violence in Alabama, which revealed a similar degree of degradation. Photos published across news outlets showed a world of gory despair, bolstering the department’s ultimate ruling: that there was “reasonable cause to believe” that Alabama’s prisons violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Mississippi’s will likely prompt a similar conclusion. And it’s not a meaningless ruling; such a designation from the DOJ can accelerate action on the part of states to fix the problems identified. This seems less likely today than under previous administrations. In the Trump era, the Justice Department has shown a growing disinterest in entering consent decrees with bad actors in the criminal-legal system, abandoning a key mechanism for keeping such entities committed to change. But the greater barrier is one that neither a damning DOJ ruling, more funding, nor increased staffing can remedy: The animating philosophy behind Mississippi and Alabama’s prison conditions is that people convicted of crimes are undeserving of basic humanity and should be condemned to suffer indefinitely.

There are few other satisfactory explanations for a system that is so universally torturous. Voters and lawmakers have collaborated in letting such environments fester from South Carolina to Wisconsin to California, transcending region and countless other differences in local economics and culture. Despite apparent upticks in sympathy toward the incarcerated of late — and openness across the political spectrum to reducing mass incarceration — there doesn’t seem to be any groundswell of interest in truly upending the punitive function of prisons. Even Elizabeth Warren, arguably the second most progressive candidate running for president in 2020, recently couched her support for abolishing the death penalty in terms of how much crueler life sentences could be. “I think that people who have committed truly heinous crimes should die in prison,” she told the New York Times. “I think that is how we give them the maximum, maximum punishment that we can: keep them in prison for all their days.”

There’s a reason this logic is popular, even among politicians and pundits who might otherwise seem anti-carceral. It transmutes the active moral depravity of an execution into the more passive and less visible moral depravity of letting a human being rot in a cell. Infusing such a system with more capital — in the form of funding — is a theoretical fix to some of its decay. But in practice there’s little to suggest that giving jailers more resources to hire more guards and kill more rats, and potentially imprison more people, would change what’s actually wrong with prisons. Mississippi and Alabama have so lowered expectations for what to expect from these facilities that advocates nevertheless find themselves pleading to give them more money, hoping that an infusion of humanity will logically follow. There are abundant reasons to be skeptical — a major one being the consistent inhumanity of prison life even in states with substantial differences in corrections funding. So as the DOJ examines what’s happening in Mississippi — a DOJ, it’s also worth noting, that has reversed its stances on a range of civil-rights lawsuits and recently opted to reinstate the federal death penalty — Americans would do well to consider to what end. If the primary takeaway is that Mississippi isn’t spending enough money to lock people up, it’s a stretch to consider that progress.

The Justice Department investigates Mississippi prisons