JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Protesters outside the Mississippi Capitol on Friday condemned conditions in state prisons where inmates have died violently in the past month.
People with relatives in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman said at a rally that some prison cells have no working lights or toilets and inmates are given sparse meals that are sometimes served with cockroaches on the trays.
“Parchman is a prison farm plantation," said Jaribu Hill, a longtime Mississippi human-rights attorney. “Shut it down!”
A few hundred protesters responded: “Shut it down! Shut it down!"
Their voices echoed in downtown Jackson, but many of the state's top policymakers were not in town to hear it. Most members of the Mississippi Legislature left the Capitol on Thursday and won't return until Monday.
At least 10 inmates have died in Mississippi prisons since late December — most of them at Parchman and most during outbursts of violence. Prison officials have attributed some of the violence to clashes between gangs.
Some inmates have used cellphones to send photos and videos of fights, trash-strewn facilities and prisoners sleeping on floors in cells without mattresses.
Cellphones are not allowed inside the prisons, and state officials have pledged to crack down on phones and other contraband. During the rally Friday, Sharon Brown with the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition said that without the inmates' cellphones, the world might not know about conditions in Parchman.
“We are here because we are sick and tired of state-sanctioned murder,” Brown said. “We are here to uplift the cries of our brothers.”
The state's new Republican governor, Tate Reeves, traveled to Parchman this week and described conditions there as “terrible.” At a news conference Thursday, Reeves said the state is taking immediate steps to try to make Parchman safer.
All wardens and deputy wardens have been put on 12-hour shifts to ensure leaders are always present at the prison, Reeves said. He said prison guards are being screened for indications that they might be involved in gangs. A Mississippi Bureau of Investigation agent has been assigned to work at Parchman to uncover criminal activity among inmates or employees that might have contributed to the violence, Reeves said.
Reeves became governor Jan. 14 after serving eight years as lieutenant governor — a job that gave him a leading role in setting state budgets.
The rally Friday was organized by Team Roc, the charity affiliated with entertainment mogul Jay-Z's company Roc Nation. Team Roc provided T-shirts and signs with the slogan, “Close Parchman."
Speaking from the stage Friday, Arica Jackson said her husband is in Parchman's Unit 29, where some of the violence has occurred. Reeves said he visited part of Unit 29, which has multiple buildings. Jackson said the governor didn't go to the area where her husband is housed.
Jackson said her husband called her Friday morning and said he had not been allowed to bathe for 30 days.
“They were using the bathroom in garbage bags," Jackson said. “They're killing rats any way they know how, to preserve what little bit of food they do get.”
Reeves said Thursday that most damage in the prisons is caused by inmates. Jackson drew cheers from the crowd when she publicly disagreed with the governor. She said employees of the Mississippi Department of Corrections — MDOC — are bringing contraband items into prisons.
“The number one thing that destroys property in MDOC is canines and the officers when they come in there ripping the whole wall down and the whole roof down looking for the contraband that they brought in there,” Jackson said.
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