In yet another example of the harmful consequences of the War on Drugs, violence in Mississippi’s Parchman state prison has left 13 people dead in the last month. And it’s gotten so bad that rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z has brought a lawsuit against Mississippi authorities over their failure to respect the rights of the state’s prisoners.
The Brooklyn-born rap star is suing the head of the Mississippi Department of Corrections and the warden of the state penitentiary at Parchman. The litigation was brought on behalf of 29 prisoners who say the officials have done nothing to stop the violence at the facility.
“These deaths are a direct result of Mississippi’s utter disregard for the people it has incarcerated and their constitutional rights,” charges the suit, which was filed on Jan. 14 by Jay-Z’s attorney Alex Spiro at the U.S. District Court in Greenville, Mississippi.
The suit follows a letter dated Jan. 9 that Spiro sent to Hall and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant on behalf of Jay-Z (born Shawn Corey Carter) and fellow rapper Yo Gotti (Mario Mims), protesting the “inhumane conditions in prisons operated by the Mississippi Department of Corrections.”
“This unthinkable spate of deaths is the culmination of years of severe understaffing and neglect at Mississippi’s prisons,” the letter stated. “As Mississippi has incarcerated increasing numbers of people, it has dramatically reduced its funding of prisons. As a result, prison conditions fail to meet even the most basic human rights… People 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.”
Cannabis Prohibition’s Role in the Prison Population
Jay-Z’s suit names three penitentiary inmates who have been killed this year: Walter Gates, Roosevelt Holliman and Denorris Howell.
Thirteen incarcerated people have been killed at Parchman and other facilities in the state since Dec. 29, including Terrandance Dobbins at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville and Gregory Emary at Chickasaw County Regional Correctional Facility. In these facilities, as at Parchman, officials admit that “gangs are at war,” and the situation is out of control.
Although none of the thirteen people killed were doing time on cannabis charges, Holliman was serving a sentence for a cocaine sale among other convictions. However, it is clear that cannabis is a major factor in the crisis of the state’s prisons. Many of the inmates at Parchman are serving time for pot — including some of those whose families are speaking up for accountability in the situation.
Angela Riley Liggins, whose son Travonta Riley, a 28-year-old father of four, is serving a five-year term for cannabis possession at Parchman, spoke to local WLBT about her concerns for his safety.
Liggins said she received a panicked phone call from her son early on the morning of Jan. 3, as the facility was descending into deadly violence. “I have been trying to call back since to see or to check to make sure he’s OK,” said Liggins. “No one is answering the phone.”
Liggins described the harsh conditions at the facility. “It’s horrible. No one should be treated that way regardless of why they are there, what happened. They are not animals. They are human. They are human beings and no one should be treated as if they are the scum of the earth,” she said. “I fear for my child’s safety there.”
Mississippi has some the harshest cannabis laws in the country. A third conviction for simple possession can land you in jail for up to six months. Selling up to 30 grams (about an ounce) is a felony punishable by up to three years imprisonment, as well as a $3,000 fine. At even simple possession of five kilograms, a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence kicks in.
The situation is exacerbated by Mississippi’s “habitual offender” laws — the state’s version of the “three strikes” law that was overturned by popular referendum in California in 2012, where nonviolent offenses are concerned. Under Mississippi law, any of the three strikes can be a cannabis conviction, with absurd sentences of up to 60 years hitting in — virtual life imprisonment.
A recent investigation by the Jackson Free Press found: “Black people accounted for 77.5% of those serving habitual sentences for non-violent offenses. The bulk of those serving extreme sentences in Mississippi are behind bars for drug-related charges, including simple marijuana possession.”
In early January, a medical marijuana measure officially qualified for the ballot in Mississippi, which means that the state’s residents will be able to vote in November on whether or not to allow people with qualifying medical conditions to access cannabis. The measure is led by Mississippians for Compassionate Care and does not appear to have any stipulation around releasing pot prisoners or expunging records.
Eighth Amendment Violations
Fortunately, some politicians have started taking note of the crisis in Mississippi’s prisons. On Jan. 7, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson joined with local clergy and advocacy groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center in calling upon the federal Department of Justice to open an immediate investigation into the conditions in Mississippi’s prisons.
In a 23-page letter addressed to Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the DoJ Civil Rights Division, Thompson and his co-signatories accused the state government of abdicating its responsibility to keep prisoners safe from the substantial risk of serious harm. The letter called this a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars “cruel and unusual punishment.”
After a visit to Parchman on Jan. 10, a group of Mississippi state representatives issued their own urgent statement.
“We have a 17,000-acre facility at Parchman for 3,400 people. We have people with low-level drug crimes who should be released and getting their lives back together, but instead are locked up,” read the statement from the Mississippi House Democratic Caucus. “Last year, we underfunded the Department of Corrections by $980,000… This is not a smart answer to this problem.”
The caucus recommended releasing the “over 6,000 of 19,000 people incarcerated” who are eligible for parole, but haven’t been released because of mandatory minimums. It also recommended that the governor use his executive power “to commute the sentences of people who are eligible for parole so we can reduce the overcrowding in our prisons. These are nonviolent offenders and people who are not a threat to the public.”
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