A Lawsuit Alleges Horrors at a Rat-Infested Mississippi Prison

Rapes, stabbings, and beatings are rampant, according to the complaint, and frequent fires cause some prisoners to "expel black mucous from their noses."
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Joshua Davis Photography

The boy, 16, was in jail. He suffered from serious psychosis, traumatic brain injury and a history of being sexually abused. On August 29, 2011, he "obeyed the voices in his head and stuck a wire into his penis," according to a history of his treatment compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union. The state of Mississippi then transferred him to a prison for mentally ill inmates.

Conditions there are the subject of a class action lawsuit the ACLU has filed against corrections officials. On the boy's arrival, a mental health worker noted that he was small for his age, appearing to be no older than 14. He was nevertheless housed, at various times, with adult prisoners, and once while being held in a cell behind a door with a broken lock, "five or six older prisoners entered his cell and beat him," according to the complaint. His subsequent time in solitary confinement drove him to the brink of suicide, a status that isn't uncommon among inmates.

Little wonder if the complaint is accurate. The allegations against the facility include all of the following:

  • "Rats climb over prisoners' beds in the dark and mice crawl out of broken toilets."
  • "Rapes, stabbings, beatings, and other acts of violence are rampant."
  • "The air is so contaminated from frequent fires that some prisoners expel black mucous from their noses."
  • "Medical staff has ignored gangrenous wounds. One prisoner's scrotum swelled to the size of a softball before revealing a hard knot on his testicle. he was denied timely proper care for weeks and was later diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his abdomen."
  • "Suicide attempts are frequent; some are successful. Other prisoners engage in gross acts of self-mutilation, including electrocution, swallowing shards of glass and razors, and tearing into their flesh with sharp objects. Defendants deny prisoners even rudimentary mental health treatment and, last year, reduced access to psychiatric care."
  • "Because there is insufficient officer staffing, prisoners are frequently left in the grime-covered shower stalls, wet, naked and cold for hours at a time."
  • "Many cells lack functioning toilets; prisoners defecate into Styrofoam trays or plastic trash bags and have no way of ridding their cells of the waste other than tossing it onto the housing unit through the slots in their cell doors, where it remains."

The full complaint can be read here. And Gabriel B. Eber, staff counsel for the ACLU's prison project, has put out a powerful statement: "I've been in prisons all around the country, and this is the worst I've ever seen." Imagine having a parent, child or sibling with serious mental health problems who committed a crime, and knowing that they were locked up inside that facility. According to Reuters, which reached a spokesperson, "The Mississippi Department of Corrections, whose top officials were named as defendants, declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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