JACKSON, Miss. — On the witness stand and under pressure, Frank Shaw, the warden of the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, could not guarantee that the prison was capable of performing its most basic function.
Asked if the guards were supposed to keep inmates in their cells, he said, wearily, “They do their best.”
According to evidence and testimony at a federal civil rights trial, far worse things were happening at the prison than inmates strolling around during a lockdown: A mentally ill man on suicide watch hanged himself, gang members were allowed to beat other prisoners, and those whose cries for medical attention were ignored resorted to setting fires in their cells.
So many shackled men have recounted instances of extraordinary violence and neglect in the prison that the judge has complained of exhaustion.
The case, which has received little attention beyond the local news media, provides a rare glimpse into the cloistered world of privately operated prisons, at a time when the number of state inmates in private facilities is increasing and the Trump administration has indicated that it will expand their use.
Management & Training Corporation, the private company that runs the East Mississippi facility near Meridian in Lauderdale County, already operates two federal prisons and more than 20 facilities around the nation.
The use of private prisons has long been contentious. A 2016 Justice Department report found that they were more violent than government-run institutions for inmates and guards alike, and the Obama administration sought to phase out their use on the federal level. Early last year, President Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, reversed the ban.
Several states, including Michigan and Utah, have stopped using private prisons in recent years because of security problems.
But more than two dozen other states, including Mississippi, contract with privately managed prison companies as a way to reduce costs. Prisons are usually among the most expensive budget items for states.
Since 2000, the number of people housed in privately operated prisons in the nation has increased by 45 percent, while the total number of prisoners has risen by only about 10 percent, according to an analysis by the Sentencing Project.
The genesis of the problems at East Mississippi, according to prisoner advocates, is that the state requires private prisons to operate at 10 percent lower cost than state-run facilities. Even at its state-run institutions, Mississippi spends significantly less on prisoners than most states, a fact that state officials once boasted about.
The federal civil rights lawsuit, filed against the state by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center after years of complaints from inmates, seeks to force wholesale changes at the prison.
Testimony has described dangerous conditions, confused lines of oversight and difficulty in attracting and retaining qualified staff.
Security staff at East Mississippi earn even less than the $12-an-hour starting wage made by their public service counterparts, and private prison guards receive only three weeks of training — less than half the training time required of state prison guards.
The state’s contract with Management & Training Corporation is particularly economical. Mississippi pays the company just $26 a day — or about $9,500 a year — for each minimum-security inmate. That is far less than the $15,000 a year neighboring Alabama spends per inmate, and only 13 percent of what New York, which spends more than any other state, pays per inmate.
Called as an expert witness for the Mississippi inmates, Eldon Vail, the former state prisons chief in Washington State, told the court that the focus on cutting costs had sent East Mississippi into a downward spiral.
“There are not a sufficient number of correctional officers, and most of their problems stem from that issue,” he said.
Mr. Vail said that with too few guards to maintain order, inmates felt compelled to protect themselves with crudely made knives and other weapons, prompting a chain of retaliatory violence. And having too few doctors and nurses meant that inmates with mental illnesses were also more likely to act out violently.
Lawyers for the state and representatives of Management & Training say prisons are meant to be tough environments, and that East Mississippi is no worse than most others.
“We can say — unequivocally — that the facility is safe, secure, clean, and well run,” Issa Arnita, a spokesman for the company, said in a statement released during the trial. “From the warden on down, our staff are trained to treat the men in our care with dignity and respect. Our mission is to help these men make choices in prison and after they’re released that will lead to a new and successful life in society.”
Trial testimony has presented a radically different picture.
Mr. Shaw, the warden — who works for Management & Training, not for the state — receives incentives for staying within budget, but is not penalized when inmates die under questionable circumstances or when fires damage the prison. Four prisoners have died this year.
The warden said that he had been unaware of cases in which inmates had been so badly beaten that they required hospitalization, and that he had not disciplined guards who failed to ensure that inmates were unable to jam door locks and leave their cells.
When Mr. Shaw was asked about the variety of homemade objects used to commit assaults at the prison, he was dismissive. “Inmates have weapons,” he said. “It’s a fact of life.”
Mr. Shaw had previously been warden at an Arizona prison operated by Management & Training, where there was a riot in 2015. A scathing state report determined the riot was sparked by Management & Training’s “culture of disorganization, disengagement and disregard” of “policies and fundamental inmate management and security principles.”
At East Mississippi, the prison designated by the state to hold mentally ill inmates, there was a glaring lack of oversight of inmate care, according to testimony. Four out of five inmates in the prison receive psychiatric medication, but the facility has not had a psychiatrist since November.
The state prison mental health director is not a medical doctor, but a marriage and family therapist. And Gloria Perry, who became the prison system’s chief medical officer in 2008, said that she had never been to the East Mississippi prison.
Pelicia E. Hall, the commissioner of the state prison system, testified that she may have been unaware of many problems at the facility because she did not read weekly performance reports from the state’s own monitor.
In the courtroom, the reports were delivered in person: An inmate testified in tears that a female guard had mocked him when he tried to report being raped in a cell in January. The guard never informed her superiors about the rape.
In an unrelated assault, surveillance video showed an inmate being beaten by other prisoners for 14 minutes before guards arrived.
Neither the state nor the private prison company has contested the accuracy of the prisoners’ accounts heard in court, although lawyers for the state say the stories should be treated with skepticism.
An inmate described another attack that occurred this year. He said a prisoner armed with a knife and a 4-foot section of pipe charged at him while he was being escorted to his cell by two guards. Instead of helping him, he said, the two guards ran away.
The inmate said he was chained at the ankles, waist and wrists at the time. He estimated that the other prisoner assaulted him for three minutes before other guards arrived and pulled the attacker off him.
“They laughed and told him not to do it again,” the inmate said, adding that the same man had beaten him with a pipe the previous month.
At the prison infirmary, he said, the medical staff simply poured distilled water onto his puncture wounds and sent him back to his cell.
“I was in excruciating pain,” he said.
It was not until three days later, the inmate said, when there was blood covering much of the floor of his cell, that he was taken to a hospital. He was treated for four stab wounds and a broken leg.
The inmate testified without giving his name, worried about retaliation from prisoners and guards alike. He said that whatever luck he has had may soon run out: When he went back to prison from the hospital, he said on the stand, he was placed in a cell next to that of his attacker.
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