Lawyers seek class status for Miss. prison lawsuit

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Lawyers suing the state over conditions at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Meridian have asked a federal judge to certify them to represent all inmates there.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center already represent a number of individual inmates at the prison, operated on behalf of the Mississippi Department of Corrections by Management and Training Corp. of Centerville, Utah.

Legal papers filed Thursday lay out additional evidence that the roughly 1,200 prisoners at East Mississippi are in danger of being harmed by fellow inmates and guards. They also say the inmates suffer from inadequate health care and mental health care. The suit also alleges that the prison is dark and filthy, especially in solitary confinement, and that MTC doesn't even provide adequate food.

ACLU lawyer Margaret Winter said the state would get a chance to respond and that U.S. District Judge Tom Lee probably won't rule until early next year.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections declined to comment on the litigation. Epps said in 2013 after the state was sued over conditions at East Mississippi that "we believe that MTC is doing a good job, and are confident the court will agree." But last month, the state said it would take new bids to operate the four prisons that MTC currently runs, saying more security staff is needed not only at East Mississippi but also at Marshall County Correctional Facility, Walnut Grove Correctional Facility and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.

The state is already operating Walnut Grove under a consent decree.

MTC spokeswoman Celeste McDonald said the company has painted everywhere, enhanced maintenance, cut contraband and improved guard training.

"MTC has been operating the East Mississippi facility for a little over two years, and has made significant improvements in overall safety and security and offender care," she wrote in an email. "MTC is very concerned about the well-being of the inmates in our care as well as our staff and the community."

Citing recent reports by plaintiff's experts as well as documents subpoenaed from the state and MTC, the plaintiffs describe East Mississippi as "an extraordinarily dangerous prison" that is "awash in contraband and weapons." Part of the problem is because some guards may be taking bribes to bring in banned items or look away while gangs beat up other inmates.

"Security officers have stood by passively, allowing inmate-on-inmate beatings, and have purposefully escorted handcuffed inmates to unsecure areas of the facility so that members of rival gangs can attack handcuffed inmates," lawyers wrote.

Such behavior has been alleged to drive violence at Walnut Grove, where a number of workers have been criminally charged for smuggling contraband.

When guards do intervene, lawyers say they often pepper spray inmates and put them back into spray-contaminated cells to continue suffering the effects of the irritant.

East Mississippi is supposed to specialize in caring for mentally ill inmates, and 844 prisoners are receiving medications meant to treat mental illnesses. But legal filings say there's only one full-time psychiatric nurse practitioner and only one part-time psychiatrist, and little individual or group therapy in most parts of the prison.

About 120 inmates are locked in solitary confinement for long stretches, where their only interaction with mental health workers may be shouting complaints through a metal door.

"Prisoners are isolated, forced to live in abject filth and darkness, subjected to violence and danger, and denied care for their most basic human needs," lawyers wrote.

One expert hired by the plaintiffs cites a December 2013 case where a mental health worker walked away from an inmate with heart disease and schizophrenia who was trying to cut himself with a small dull object and had a long rope tied around his neck. The mental health worker said the man did not appear to be in any distress and he wasn't seen again by a mental health worker for nine days.

"This event went beyond any deliberate indifference I have seen in my entire career; it is the definition of intentional patient abandonment," wrote Dr. Marc Stern.

Later that month, the inmate set a fire in his cell, in what a nurse interpreted as an attempt to get medical attention. The inmate died two days later from the effects of heart disease, according to a preliminary autopsy.


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