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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A top official in the Mississippi prison system says an attorney's account that an inmate recently attempted suicide by hanging is “completely untrue.”
Jeworski Mallett said in court papers filed Sunday that an inmate in the Mississippi State Penitentiary on Friday made “a makeshift pull-up exercise device out of what appeared to be shredded bed linens.”
Mallett is acting deputy commissioner of institutions for the Mississippi Department of Corrections. He wrote that he was at Parchman on Friday and he and other employees took down the exercise device.
“This incident was not an attempted suicide,” Mallett wrote. “To my knowledge, there were no attempted suicides that occurred on January 31, 2020, as alleged by plaintiffs.”
Casey L. Austin is one of the attorneys representing inmates in a federal lawsuit against Mississippi over conditions in the state's prisons, which have been shaken by violence in recent weeks. The lawsuit is funded by Team Roc, a philanthropic group connected to entertainment mogul Jay-Z's company, Roc Nation.
In court papers Saturday, Austin wrote that he was inside Parchman to interview inmates Friday.
“At approximately 2:00 p.m., I heard a Mississippi State Trooper tell the Unit 29 lobby Correctional Officer that he had just ‘cut one down,’” Austin wrote. “He then explained to Correctional Officer that he had cut down an inmate who had tried to hang himself in his cell.”
The trooper also said he had taken pictures of the incident and sent them to a captain, Austin wrote. An ambulance arrived about 15 minutes later, the attorney wrote.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Grace Simmons Fisher told The Associated Press on Saturday that the department was "investigating those statements” by Austin.
Mallett's court statement filed Sunday did not mention an ambulance. Neither Mallett nor Austin identified the inmate.
At least 15 inmates have died in Mississippi prisons since late December, most of them at Parchman. Many of them were killed in outbursts of violence. Two inmates died by hanging, and prison officials said one of those was alone in a cell with the lock jammed from the inside. A Department of Corrections statement said the other hanging appeared to be a suicide.
Violence is a recurring problem in Mississippi prisons, where many jobs for guards are unfilled. Health department inspections also show Parchman has longstanding problems with broken sinks and toilets in cells, holes in cell walls, widespread mold and mildew in showers and sanitation problems in kitchens.
More than 30 Parchman inmates are plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit that says understaffed prisons are “plagued by violence” and inmates are forced to live in decrepit and dangerous conditions.
Gov. Tate Reeves said in his State of the State speech Jan. 27 that he has told the Department of Corrections to take steps to shut down Parchman's Unit 29, but the department has not said how long that will take.
The department's interim commissioner, Tommy Taylor, said after Reeves' speech that inmates in Unit 29 have clean water to drink and warm water for showers. He said some inmates had not been allowed to shower for several days while prisons were on lockdown because of the violence. He said those no longer on lockdown have had a chance to shower and have been given new clothes.
Taylor also said toilets have been repaired, and crews are patching holes that allowed rain into buildings. He said workers are also repairing problems with electrical systems and heating.