Even in a nation known for its draconian prison conditions and brutal lockdown units, the supermax portion of Mississippi’s state penitentiary stood out. Critics and residents described it as a “horrific” and “wretched” place of “hopelessness and despair.” Or, as Chris Joyner described it last week in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger:
Unit 32 was a nightmare, if sworn testimony and a string of violent deaths is a reliable measure.
The supermax unit at the State Penitentiary at Parchman once held 1,000 men from gang leaders to petty thieves to seriously mentally ill inmates whose howls could be heard day and night. Prisoners were kept in isolation 23 hours a day, often behind full metal doors in stifling cells with broken lights, yet violence was common between inmates and guards and among the inmates themselves…[Unit 32] was home to hundreds of inmates with serious mental ailments including schizophrenia.
MDOC [Mississippi Department of Corrections] officials often described it as place for the “worst of the worst.” But it also was home to property criminals or inmates convicted of drug crimes who had been sent to the unit for disciplinary infractions and given no way to earn their way back out.
Parchman, a 20,000-acre penal plantation that epitomized Jim Crow justice, has a long history of abusing and degrading its prisoners. But now, at least, the hellhole that was Unit 32 will soon close its doors for good. As the Clarion Ledger reports:
After instituting a host of reforms over the past 2 1/2 years, MDOC agreed Friday in U.S. District Court to remove the unit’s remaining prisoners as final settlement of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union seven years ago.
“Unit 32, at a certain point, could not be reformed,” ACLU National Prison Project attorney Margaret Winter said. “It is truly a wretched place that cannot be made environmentally adequate.”…
Under the agreement, MDOC will transfer seriously mentally ill prisoners from the unit to East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Meridian, a private prison specially equipped to deal with inmates with psychiatric problems, and the remaining Unit 32 prisoners to “appropriate housing” within the prison system.
The story of Unit 32’s demise is a credit to the advocates who led a decade-long fight to reform or abolish the place. It may also provide a model for other fights against the use of solitary confinement in state and federal prisons across the country.
The story was told in detail by Margaret Winters of the ACLU and Stephen F. Hanlon of the law firm Holland & Knight, which provided pro bono assistance in a series of Unit 32 lawsuits. Their 2008 article “Parchman Farm Blues: Pushing for Prison Reforms at Mississippi State Penitentiary” appeared in the American Bar Association’s journal Litigation. Winters and Hanlon describe how they first became involved, in 1998, in a suit on behalf of HIV-positive prisoners at Parchman, who lived in dismal conditions in a segregated AIDS unit. They began representing prisoners on Parchman’s death row in 2002, after a group of inmates staged a hunger strike to protest conditions. In their article, Winters and Hanlon describe their first visit to death row, which was located inside Unit 32, as “14 unforgettable hours of bedlam and hellish heat.”
The death row prisoners described profound isolation, unrelieved idleness and monotony, denial of exercise, intolerable stench and pervasive filth, grossly malfunctioning plumbing, and constant exposure to human excrement. Each cell had a “ping-pong” toilet, allowing waste from one cell to back up into the toilet in the adjoining cell. The temperatures in the cells during the long Delta summers were lethal, with heat indexes, we later proved, of over 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
The cells were so infested with mosquitoes that inmates had to keep their windows closed and their bodies completely covered even in the hottest weather. Leaking rainwater and foul water from flooded toilets on upper floors soaked inmates’ beds and personal items; prisoners weren’t provided clean water, soap, and other basic cleaning supplies, even when they were moved into a cell smeared with excrement by the previous tenants.
Lighting in the cells was so dim that the prisoners couldn’t see to read, write, groom themselves, or clean their cells. They were denied basic medical, dental, and mental health care. They were exposed day and night to the screams and ravings of severely mentally ill inmates in adjoining cells.
Winters and Hanlon knew that “in Mississippi, it is widely considered fitting that these prisoners should suffer as much as possible before their execution.” (This despite the fact that because of defective trials, just as many of the state’s prisoners “are eventually released from death row as are executed.”) But in 2003, Federal District Court Judge Jerry Davis “entered an opinion and far-reaching injunction granting most of the relief” the prisoners’ lawyers had asked for.
Their next step, Winters and Hanlon write, was “to extend the relief we had won for the death row prisoners to the other 1,000 men in Unit 32.” These men were in basic administrative segregation–solitary confinement–for reasons ranging from disciplinary infractions to mental illness to a need for protective custody. They lived in conditions that were in some ways “even worse” than those on death row.
The men in Unit 32 in administrative segregation were all locked down 23 to 24 hours a day in even more profound isolation and unrelieved idleness than on death row. There was a pervasive culture of violence and sadistic use of excessive force. Corrections officers gratuitously beat prisoners already in full restraints. Take-down teams forcibly extracted shackled prisoners from their cells, sprayed them with a chemical agent that causes vomiting and shortness of breath, and then assaulted them again.
The combination of all these conditions was causing serious mental illness to emerge in previously healthy prisoners, and causing psychosis and complete mental breakdown in less healthy prisoners. Suicides and attempted suicides occurred with alarming frequency.
This case was more complicated, because the it challenged not only conditions in Unit 32, but the MDOC’s system for “classifying” prisoners. “Although Unit 32 is supposedly used to incarcerate the most dangerous and incorrigible offenders in the state,” Winters and Hanlon write, “in reality, the vast majority of the men housed in Unit 32—for years, sometimes for decades—did not have the kind of criminal or institutional history that would justify incarceration under ‘supermax’ conditions.” Some prisoners were locked up in the unit “because they had special medical needs, were severely mentally ill, or had requested protective custody. And once classified to Unit 32, there was no emerging from it. Hundreds of prisoners were doomed to stay there forever.”
As Winters and Hanlon point out, federal courts have held that “prison officials had essentially unfettered discretion to classify prisoners and to confine them to whatever degree of isolation they saw fit.” But in 2005, under Judge Davis, the ACLU team and the MDOC hammered out a settlement that “incorporated all the relief” from the death row case, and “added provisions on excessive force, procedural due process, and classification.”
It would take several years, further hearings, and another settlement before the changes were fully implemented. But under the new classification system, more than 80 percent of the prisoners in Unit 32 were moved out of administrative segregation–some to the general population, others to mental health units. Those remaining in solitary received written plans telling them what they needed to do to earn their way out, and reviews every 90 days.
The process of reclassification at Parchman is described in detail in a 2009 article called “Beyond Supermax Solitary Confinement: Mississippi’s Experience Rethinking Prison Classification and Creating Alternative Mental Health Programs,” published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior. Its lead author, Dr. Terry Kupers of Berkeley’s Wright Institute, is a leading expert on the psychological effects of solitary confinement, and was a key participant in the reform of Unit 32.
None of this means that all is well in the Mississippi prison system–far from it. The state’s prisoners–including, no doubt, many of those moved out of Unit 32–still suffer from inadequate health care, overcrowding, and a host of other problems. But it seems like a significant victory, especially when it comes to challenging the excessive, arbitrary, and inhumane use of solitary confinement. In a press release issued by the ACLU, Margaret Winter said, “This facility was truly a dangerous and degrading environment for prisoners and staff alike. The fact that this facility is now being closed is a great end to the long road that we have been on.”