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The racial justice group Until Freedom helped lead a rally at the Mississippi State Capitol on Friday where attendees demanded the state shut down the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm. (Photo: @UntilFreedom/Twitter)

Rights Advocates Demand National Attention to 'State of Emergency' in Mississippi Prisons, Where 12 Inmates Have Died In Less Than a Month

"Parchman Prison is a torture chamber and we cannot afford to be robbed of one more human life at the hands of Mississippi's state corrections system," said Rep. Ayanna Pressley.

Julia Conley

Human rights groups are decrying a "human rights crisis" that has been unfolding in Mississippi's state prison system over the past several weeks, with at least a dozen inmates dying in their decrepit cells and in outbursts of violence since late December.

A majority of the deaths have happened at Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman, where a 26-year-old inmate was found hanging in his cell over the weekend.

At least five inmates in the state prison system were killed in gang violence earlier in the month, and prison reform advocates have linked the violence and deaths to understaffing and inhumane conditions in the facilities, particularly at Parchman. 

The violence at the prisons must be recognized as "a state of emergency, a human rights crisis," tweeted Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Sunday night.

Gupta's call was joined by other human rights advocates who made urgent calls for immediate and far-reaching reforms to the state's prisons, which have faced overcrowding and understaffing in recent years as Republican leaders have passed dozens of tax cuts and slashed funding.

In a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month, 29 Parchman inmates described a facility overrun by rats, plagued by flooding, sewage, and black mold, and frequently lacking running water and electricity.

"Plaintiffs' lives are in peril," reads the lawsuit, which rappers Jay-Z and Yo Gotti funded on behalf of the inmates. "Individuals held in Mississippi's prisons are dying because Mississippi has failed to fund its prisons, resulting in prisons where violence reigns because prisons are understaffed... These deaths are a direct result of Mississippi's utter disregard for the people it has incarcerated and their constitutional rights."

Last Friday, family members of state prisoners were among those who gathered at the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson to demand that Parchman be closed.

At the rally, Arica Jackson, whose husband is incarcerated at Parchman, told the New York Times that some inmates have not been permitted to bathe in a month and are resorting to desperate measures to feed themselves, given the meager meals they are served.

"They're killing rats any way they know how, to preserve what little bit of food they do get," Jackson told the Times.

Mississippi's Republican governor, Tate Reeves, claimed last week that inmates' contraband use of cell phones is partially to blame for the gang violence in prisons.

Prisoners' use of cell phones has been credited with showing the media and the outside world the reality of life inside the state's prison system.

"Inmates have used illegal cellphones to capture and transmit images—inmates fighting, broken toilets, holes in prison walls, dangling wires and dead rodents caught in sticky traps—that have come to define the crisis in Mississippi," the Times reported two days after the Parchman inmates filed their federal lawsuit.

Reeves's anti-cell phone stance is "code for, we really didn't want you to see what was happening inside," public defender Rebecca Kavanagh tweeted last week.

Earlier this month, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP, and the ACLU were among several groups which demanded a federal investigation of Mississippi's prison system for possible civil rights violations.

"It is no exaggeration to say more lives will be lost absent immediate intervention," wrote the groups.

On social media last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) urged policymakers to listen to the calls of inmates at Parchman and their family members.

"We cannot look away from this," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. "It's time to stand with those working to shut down Parchman."

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