December 29, 2019 – January 4, 2020
A series of riots and fights between prisoners in the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) has resulted in the deaths of five prisoners and two escapes.
The first of these deaths occurred at South Mississippi Correctional Institution (SMCI) on December 29 when Terrandance Dobbins, 40, was killed during a “major disturbance” that triggered a statewide lockdown. The details of the disturbance remain unclear.
In the weeks before the event, Candice Dobbins, Terrandance’s sister, told the Clarion-Ledger that her brother felt unsafe at SMCI and that she had been trying to get him transferred.
Candice told the Clarion-Ledger that her brother dreamed of opening a barber shop after his release and that he wanted to be a mentor to youth. According to his sister, Terrandance would often give advice to other prisoners prior to their release, saying, “get out of this place and don’t ever come back.”
Candice said the MDOC has not been answering her questions about her brother’s death, despite multiple attempts to contact officials.
The second death at a Mississippi facility occurred shortly after midnight on New Year’s Eve when Walter Gates, 25, was killed in Unit 29E of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman (MSP) during what the MDOC described as a “gang-related riot.” Gates died after receiving multiple stab wounds to the abdomen.
Just days later, a third death occurred, this time at the Chicksaw County Regional Correctional Facility (CCRCF). Gregory Emary, 26, was killed during what the MDOC has called a “fight.” Two others were also injured.
Emary’s ex-wife, Kara Cox, spoke to the Clarion-Ledger about Emary. “He was a very kind soul and had an amazing sense of humor,” she said. “He could get along with anybody. Many people really loved him.” She added that he was always willing to help others: “He would do anything for anybody.”
Cox said that Emary was not in a gang. “They riot and there’s nothing else you can do. You can’t run you can’t hide. There’s nowhere for you to go,” she said. According to Cox, Emary was looking forward to spending time with his children when he got out of prison and his former employer was going to give him his job back. He hoped to help others who had been released from prison.
“These are people’s sons, fathers, brothers,” she said. “It’s really sad….Something needs to change in the system so that other families don’t have their loved ones end up as victims of collateral damage of whats going on.”
Emary was serving a 16-year sentence for burglary of an unoccupied dwelling in Tate County.
The fourth and fifth deaths also occurred at Parchman, where Terrandance Dobbins was killed just days earlier. Roosevelt Holliman, 32, and Denorris Howell, 36, were both killed during what the MDOC called “gang fights” on January 2 and the early morning of January 3.
Holliman was scheduled to be released in June 2021. His sister, Theresa Holliman, spoke with the Clarion-Ledger about her grief at her brother’s death. “We are not coping with it well at all,” Theresa Holliman said. “We didn’t expect Roosevelt to go so soon.”
“He was everything to me,” she said. “He was my big brother.”
The MDOC has not provided Holliman’s family with information about his death. The little that the family does know, his sister said, has come from the funeral home.
Denorris Howell died from neck injuries sustained during a fight with his cellmate. The MDOC claimed in a statement released January 3 that his death was not related to the “major disturbances,” but provided no further information.
Amidst the violence across Mississippi facilities, families complained of a lack of information on the whereabouts and well-being of their loved ones.
@PrisonReformMvt #MDOC has taken my fathers pic down off the website and his status says “moved 1/9/2020” but no location. Dead? Alive? In a hospital? Who’s going to give answers? Where is my father?!#ParchmanPrison @PhilBryantMS @tatereeves
— Tori Saranthus ⚓ (@torisaranthus) January 14, 2020
The Washington Post reported that Kaye Sullivan, an office administrator at Sunflower County Coroner, where Parchman is located, said in an email that “a chaotic environment, poor lighting and significant amounts of spilled blood made investigating the deaths at Parchman “‘extremely difficult.'”
Amidst the deaths at Parchman, two prisoners were also noticed missing at 1:45 a.m. on January 4. David May, 42 and Dillion Williams, 27 seemingly escaped during the fighting that occurred the previous day. May was recaptured on Sunday, January 5 and Williams was recaptured in Rossville, Tennessee on Monday, January 6.
State inmates David May, 42, & Dillion Williams, 27, were discovered missing about 1:45 a.m. today at MS State Penitentiary at Parchman. May was convicted of aggravated assault in Harrison Co. Williams of agg assault & burglary in Marshall Co. Contact 662-745-6611 or nearest LE. pic.twitter.com/zSkqYXnGFS
— MDOC (@MS_MDOC) January 4, 2020
On January 9, MDOC announced that 375 prisoners would be transferred to Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, a private prison operated by CoreCivic that also holds contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The MDOC said in a statement that the contract between CoreCivic and the department of corrections has an initial term of 90 days and is expected to cost the state more than $2 million.
The relocation of up to 375 inmates from the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman to nearby Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler was completed today. Movement is still limited at the state prison. pic.twitter.com/iuKRbQto3m
— MDOC (@MS_MDOC) January 12, 2020
“The Tutwiler facility was chosen because it is the only location that can immediately take on this population,” Commissioner Pelicia E. Hall said. “The facility is already operational and sufficiently staffed to manage close custody inmates. The department acted swiftly because of the violence at MSP and a lack of manpower to restore and maintain order. We also cannot staff any other facility.”
Following the wave of violence, prisoners at Parchman were initially transferred to the prison’s Unit 32, which was closed in 2011 as part of a lawsuit settlement. In July 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union told a federal judge that Unit 32’s living conditions were “as bad as anywhere in the country.” Prisoners were also initially housed in Unit 29 of the prison, which the MDOC said in a statement “has a failing infrastructure” and “needs major repair and renovation.”
The Mississippi Department of Corrections has claimed that the “major disturbances” are all gang related, and the Associated Press has reported that families claim the deaths are a result of ongoing conflict between the Vice Lords and Black Gangster Disciples.
Others see the blame as being elsewhere. Malaika Canada, whose son is incarcerated in Mississippi, believes that the “Mississippi Department of Corrections needs to be responsible for this massacre” given that the disturbances come in the midst of chaotic and inhumane conditions in the MDOC.
In June, 2019, the Mississippi Department of Health released a report documenting deplorable conditions at Parchman, as infrastructure crumbles with prisoners forced to live within it. Images in the report show prisoners looking on as water leaks into their cells from broken windows and pipes leak onto the floor. The images also show mold and mildew in the showers, inoperable sinks and toilets, and stagnant water on floors and in buckets.
Following the wave of violence, several civil rights groups as well as Representative Bennie G. Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, issued a public letter to U.S. Assistant Attorney General Dreiband demanding an immediate investigation of the Mississippi prison system.
The letter traces a history of what it calls “deliberate and systematic” subjection of prisoners to “substantial risk of serious harm due to understaffing, in violation of the rights secured and protected by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution…” The letter goes on to state that “it is no exaggeration to say more lives will be lost absent immediate intervention.”
According to the groups, Mississippi state officials have been aware of the deteriorating conditions in the state’s prison system, but have refused to take action:
Mississippi’s officials and legislators have been well aware of but taken no steps to remedy the over incarceration and understaffing crisis that has been building for years, resulting in dozens of deaths and culminating in the violence of the last two weeks. State officials acknowledge but simply refuse to address the dangerous, widespread staffing shortages at state and privately operated MDOC facilities. As a result, some 20,000 people in MDOC custody are systemically exposed to substantial risks of serious harm in violation of the Eighth Amendment. They are held in conditions amounting to solitary confinement due to arbitrary, indefinite lockdowns caused by a lack of staff. Their basic human needs—for food, water, warmth, exercise, medical attention, and more—go ignored and unfulfilled. They are exposed to persistent threats of violence, including from gangs that effectively manage housing units and control the lives of people residing there, in the absence of sufficient numbers of correctional staff.
The string of fights came in the wake of a ruling on a lawsuit by U.S. District Judge William Barbour that stated that while conditions may have previously been poor at East Mississippi Correctional Facility, there is no longer any evidence that the privately run prison is violating inmates’ rights. According to the judge, conditions improved after former Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps resigned in November 2014.
According to The New York Times, Epps predicted the coming crisis in the MDOC during budget hearings in October 2012. “I see trouble down the road” Epps stated. He continued to say that keeping salaries for guards the lowest in the nation would only work “as long as we don’t have an uprising.”
Epps was later convicted of accepting more than $1.4 million in bribes from private prison operators.
Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates of any state in the US, well above the US average. According to MDOC budget documents reviewed by The New York Times, the three state run prisons in Mississippi are severely understaffed. Only about half of security posts were staffed in the budgetary year ending June 30, 2019 and corrections officers were forced to work double shifts with no officers available to relieve them.
MDOC Commissioner Pelicia E. Hall has claimed that cellphones are partly to blame for the recent wave of violence. “Cellphones are contraband and have been instrumental in escalating the violence,” she said, but prisoners have also used them to expose prison conditions that would otherwise have gone unnoticed by the public. Videos shot by prisoners have shown cell blocks without water or electricity housing prisoners who say they have been living in the dark without showers for weeks. Another video showed a prisoner with an injury on his back that he said was inflicted by less lethal weaponry fired at point blank range by prison guards.
Prisoners at Mississippi State Prison at Parchman shot a video demanding medical help for a diabetic prisoner in need of insulin, January 12, 2019.
Prisoners at Mississippi State Prison at Parchman shot a video documenting a wound and the unsanitary conditions on the prison, January 12, 2019.
On January 10, a group of activists and family members organized under the banner of The Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition and The Peoples Advocacy Institution led a march to the Mississippi State Capitol building to protest conditions in MDOC prisons.
Today @yandysmith & dozens of other prison reform activists in #Mississippi marched inside the Capitol Building to protest @MS_MDOC prison conditions & recent inmate deaths. They attempted to speak to Lt. Gov. @DelbertHosemann & Gov. elect @tatereeves but they weren’t available. pic.twitter.com/HiLx2X9hRG
— Alex Love (@AlexLoveWJTV) January 10, 2020
In response to the crisis, Jay-Z and Yo Gotti sent a letter to the Mississippi Department of Corrections threatening to sue them if conditions were not improved. The letter states that prisoners “are forced to live in squalor, with rats that crawl over them as they sleep on the floor, having been denied even a mattress for a cot.”
“To see this happen so close to my hometown of Memphis is truly devastating,” Yo Gotti’s statement said. “That’s why we’re calling on Mississippi state leaders to take immediate action and rectify this issue. If they don’t right this wrong, we’re prepared to take legal action to provide relief for those that are incarcerated and their families.”
Alex Spiro, the New York attorney for Roc Nation, the entertainment company founded by Jay-Z in 2008, officially filed a lawsuit against the MDOC on behalf of 29 inmates on January 14.
The lawsuit stated:
Plaintiffs’ lives are in peril…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. In the past two weeks alone, five men incarcerated in Mississippi have died as the result of prison violence. These deaths are a direct result of Mississippi’s utter disregard for the people it has incarcerated and their constitutional rights.
In response to the violence, a group of “concerned citizens” has started the Mississippi Freedom Letters Campaign, stating, “it is our intention to write every single person incarcerated in the state (all 30,000) a brief message to let them know that they are loved and we will never stop fighting for them.”
On January 14, two prison advocacy groups, FAMM and Mississippi Dreams Prisoner Family Support, put out a press release calling for the closure of MSP at Parchman.
FAMM President Kevin Ring decried the impact of the facility on his community. “Parchman’s horrendous reputation goes back more than a century — it’s a place of hopelessness,” he said. “This recent spate of deaths is sadly nothing new in the prison’s legacy of despair. The time has come to end that legacy, and close Parchman forever.”
📢 CALL TO ACTION📢:
FAMM & MS Dreams Prisoner Family Support call on the MS legislature to #CloseParchman.
Text PARCHMAN to 21333.
You’ll be directed on how to take action from there.#CloseParchman #Parchman #Mississippi https://t.co/uN8j6WuduY
— Mississippi Dreams Prisoner Advocacy (@MSDreamsPA) January 18, 2020
Article published: January 20, 2020.
Header photo source: USA Today
“4th death in Mississippi prisons; judge says other prison OK“, The Washington Post, January 2, 2020.
“‘Major disturbance’: Fourth inmate killed as violence escalates in Mississippi prisons“, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, January 2, 2020.
“Two Mississippi inmates missing amid rash of prison violence“, CNN, January 4, 2020.
“Five Mississippi inmates were killed in a week, officials say. Then two went missing.“, The Washington Post, January 5, 2020.
“Federal investigation requested | New governor takes office this week“, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 6, 2020.
“5 inmates dead during weeklong jail fights“, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 7, 2020.
“Jay-Z, Yo Gotti threaten to sue Mississippi over ‘inhumane and unconstitutional’ prisons,“ Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, January 12, 2020.
“‘Emergency contract:’ Parchman inmates being moved to private prison in Tallahatchie County“, The Clarion Ledger, January 9, 2020.
“‘Justice or else’, Protesters demand permanent solutions to state prison conditions“, WJTV, January 10, 2020.
“Yo Gotti, Jay-Z’s Team Roc Sue Mississippi Prison Officials Over Prison Conditions“, Rolling Stone, January 14, 2020.
“Ex-Miss. prison boss pleads not guilty to bribery“, KSL, November 7, 2014.
Mississippi State Penitentiary Parchman, Mississippi 2019 Health Inspection Annual Report, June 3-7, 2019.
Mississippi Department of Corrections Press Releases:
“MDOC Commissioner Hall Announces Resignation“, Mississippi Department of Corrections, Press Release, December 31, 2019.
“MDOC Issues Statement on Lockdown“, Mississippi Department of Corrections, Press Release, January 2, 2020.
“Latest Update on Lockdown“, Mississippi Department of Corrections, Press Release, January 3, 2020.
“Two Inmates Missing at Parchman Prison“, Mississippi Department of Corrections, Press Release, January 4, 2020.
“Escaped Inmate Remains at Large“, Mississippi Department of Corrections, Press Release, January 5, 2020.
“Two Parchman Escapees Now in Custody“, Mississippi Department of Corrections, Press Release, January 6, 2020.
“Update-Lockdown Lifted for 11 Regionals“, Mississippi Department of Corrections, Press Release, January 7, 2020.
“CoreCivic Inc. Contracted to House Parchman Inmates“, Mississippi Department of Corrections, Press Release, January 9, 2020.
“Lockdown Lifted for all Prisons, Except MSP“, Mississippi Department of Corrections, Press Release, January 10, 2020.