It has been a terrible year for those living at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman.

Since December 29, more than 18 people there have died— many from violence or medical neglect. That’s staggering considering that the prison’s stated capacity is about 3,330. In the same period, just 33 people have died from in the entire 94,000-person Florida prison system.

Likewise, 16 people died in the Texas prison system, 10 in the Colorado prison system, and nine in the Nevada prison system.

What are the causes of this terrible death toll?

Parchman has suffered from years of budget cuts, deferred maintenance, and a lock ’em up mentality that packed in people brought matters to a boiling point earlier this year.

Parchman is literally rotting and state health inspectors report, “more than 400 cells with problems such as flooding and leaks, lack of lights, power, and water, broken toilets and sinks.”

Budget cuts and low pay have caused a massive understaffing problem; in January, according to the investigative outfit ProPublica, just 261 out of 512 staff positions at Parchman were filled, or 42 percent. A lawsuit funded by entertainers Jay-Z and Yo Gotti alleges that officials, unable to manage the prison, have essentially outsourced security to gangs.

In March Gov. Tate Reeves announced the closing an entire unit — the infamous Unit 29 — saying, “I’ve seen enough. We have to turn the page.” However, as the death toll continues to rise, that closing has yet to happen

Now, unless the state acts quickly, COVID-19 is about to make a hellish situation much worse.

So far, at least four people in Mississippi prisons have tested positive, with one of those inside Parchman prison. But no more than two dozen people have been tested, and it is certain that the number of actual cases is much higher. Few settings present better hunting for a virus. People are packed together in close quarters, often in open dorms with no ability to social-distance. They also suffer disproportionately from immunity compromising conditions such as diabetes, HIV, hepatitis and asthma.

For likely proof that the real number of COVID-19 cases in Parchman is much higher, all we need to do is look at Ohio. There, on April 7, the state reported just 14 cases in its prison system, with 10 of them clustered in a single facility in Marion.

By April 19, there were 2,400 cases in Ohio prisons, and 6 incarcerated people and a guard had died. Widespread testing in the Marion prison revealed that more than three-quarters of its 2,500 incarcerated people were positive. A quarter of Ohio’s reported COVID-19 cases are in prisons.

Sadly, this is what lies ahead for Parchman if the state fails to act. Given that we know that health care there is substandard and conditions have been deteriorating for years, worse results are a distinct possibility.

The public should be concerned about Parchman for many reasons. Namely, this is a matter of human decency. People in prisons are still our brothers and sisters and they have constitutional rights. Letting people suffer in silence, regardless of whether they made a bad decision in life, is not what America is about.

Beyond the humanitarian aspect, it just isn’t possible to lock prisons down completely. Every day, thousands of guards and staff members enter prisons and then return to their homes and communities. In that sense, prisons are like tiny reactors, spewing the virus into the communities around them. If you don’t care about people in prison getting coronavirus, you should care about them becoming incubators of viral spread. And they will.

So, what should Mississippi do?

To start, it needs to follow Ohio’s example and begin widespread testing. The governor and the parole board should use the clemency and parole powers to release people following a mandatory quarantine period. There is no reason why people who are close to being released and have a reentry plan can’t be released now. Taking this step will improve public health and safety; What won’t help is continuing to pack Mississippi’s prisons and thus elevating the odds of the coronavirus spreading throughout the state like wildfire.

Long term, the state simply must address the appalling conditions within Parchman. Before COVID-19 hit and diverted everyone’s attention, the U.S. Department of Justice was already ramping up to investigate conditions there.

That investigation will eventually resume, but the state shouldn’t wait to address the funding, overcrowding, maintenance, and security problems at Parchman. Otherwise, the federal government or the federal courts are likely to intervene and impose a top-down solution of their own.

Featured Publications