Jay-Z-funded lawsuits end as Mississippi improves prison conditions

Lawyers employed by Jay-Z and other entertainers have settled two lawsuits they filed on behalf of the Mississippi inmates in 2020 over what they said were miserable living conditions in the state’s oldest prison — a facility that came under Justice Department control after outbreaks of deadly violence by inmates.

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Even before the violence at Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman in late 2019 and early 2020, state health inspectors had found repeated problems with broken toilets and moldy showers. Inmates said some cell doors did not lock and it was common to see rats and cockroaches.

The lawsuits were dismissed on Jan. 13, after attorneys for the inmates and the state Department of Corrections said improvements have been made over the past three years, including installing air conditioning in most of the prison, renovating some bathrooms and updating electrical, water and sewer systems .

In April, the US Department of Justice issued a report saying Parchman had violated inmates’ constitutional rights. The department said the prison failed to protect inmates from violence, meet their mental health needs or take adequate suicide prevention steps, and that the prison had relied too heavily on long-term solitary confinement.

The Justice Department spent two years investigating Parchman. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in April that Mississippi Department of Corrections officials were cooperating with the investigation and promised to fix problems.

U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock in Northern Mississippi filed the order this month to dismiss the lawsuits funded by Jay-Z; rapper Yo Gotti; and Team Roc, the philanthropic arm of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. In a lawsuit, attorneys for the plaintiffs and the Mississippi Department of Corrections defendants agreed that no one involved in the lawsuits admitted responsibility or liability to anyone else in the cases.

“We are pleased that Parchman has begun to address the cruel and inhumane prison conditions following the Justice Department’s investigation, but we are not satisfied with short-term improvements,” said Mario Mims, who goes by the stage name Yo Gotti. in a statement on Monday (January 22). “The Mississippi Department of Corrections has neglected these torturous living conditions for decades, so we will continue to hold them accountable and ensure they commit to creating lasting change that safely protects their incarcerated population.”

One lawsuit was filed in January 2020, and the other was filed a month later. The two were eventually merged. The second suit said Parchman was a violent, rat-infested place where inmates lived in “abhorrent conditions” and their medical needs were routinely ignored.

Burl Cain, a former Louisiana prison guard, became commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections in May 2020 and promised to improve conditions at Parchman. Since then, the department has moved some inmates to other prisons. Parchman had more than 3,200 inmates as of December 2019; it has about 2,450 this month.

“The Mississippi Department of Corrections appreciates the tremendous responsibility of housing individuals sentenced to our care, custody and control and has always been committed to continually improving the living conditions of those housed in all of our correctional facilities, including Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman.” Courtney Cockrell, an attorney for the department, said in a statement Monday. “Accordingly, we have and will continue to make diligent efforts to improve the quality of life for all individuals in MDOC’s custody and provide opportunities for them to successfully return to their communities.”

Violence has been a long-standing problem in Mississippi prisons, with many guard jobs left vacant. State Department of Corrections officials have said for years that it is difficult to find people to work as guards because of low pay, long hours and dangerous conditions. The state has increased the salary for the past two years.

The Justice Department said last year it found “gross understaffing” and “uncontrolled gang activity.” It also found that inadequate security gave inmates “unfettered access to contraband”. Parchman was founded in 1901 on the site of a former plantation. For decades, inmates worked in a farming operation that critics say was akin to slavery.

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