In the midst of the Mississippi prison uprising that claimed the lives of several inmates this month, two inmates escaped by stealing a correction officer’s personal pickup truck, then fooling guards into opening the prison gates which allowed them to make their getaway – according to an exclusive interview with an inmate who spoke to PINAC News on a smuggled phone this week.
But that detail was never reported by the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation in its press release about the escape.
Instead, the state police agency claimed the escapees stole the truck “in close proximity to the prison” – making it sound as if they had stolen the truck from outside the Mississippi State Penitentiary which is also known as Parchman Farm, the oldest prison in the state.
Built in 1901 as a way to force young black men to do the work slaves once did, it became a blueprint for the modern-day private prison industry.
But now it is a prison rotting from the inside out, according to multiple photos and videos that have been leaked from the inmates using contraband phones, one of several prisons across the state where inmates began rioting on December 29 following the slaying of an inmate at the Southern Mississippi Correctional Institute which was followed by three inmates killed in Parchman.
During the first month of 2020, Parchman has become the epicenter of the criminal justice reform movement, thanks to the leaked photos and videos showing the horrid living conditions inside the prison, drawing the attention of hip hop artists Jay-Z who has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the inmates.
Inside the stolen truck on January 4 were guns and ammo belonging to the corrections officer, said Inmate Doe whom we are keeping anonymous for his protection but who has already served almost two decades in Parchman. But that detail was also never reported by police.
“They had an hour head start,” Inmate Doe said of the escapees, who were caught within two days of their escape about 100 miles away. “They didn’t notice for an hour. How does that happen with 100-200 officers right there?”
The reason they did not notice is because Parchman is severely understaffed as all prisons are in Mississippi, a state with the third highest incarceration rate in the country yet the lowest salaries for corrections officers with plans to make further cuts to the prison budget in the coming years.
It’s so bad that the prison gangs are running the prisons, according to the United States Department of Justice.
“Rampant overincarceration and acute understaffing at MDOC is so severe that it is functionally impossible for facility personnel to adequately manage the institutions and individuals charged to their care, resulting in brutal, foreseeable, and preventable deaths and injuries as the incarcerated individuals are left to themselves to fight for control of the facilities,” wrote Southern Poverty Law Center in a 23-page letter in a letter to the Department of Justice requesting a federal investigation into the prison.
“Due to rampant overincarceration and understaffing, gang control is prevalent at facilities throughout Mississippi.”
Gangs Save Guard
Prison gang members saved the life of a corrections officer who was being attacked by inmates with knives on Wednesday, Inmate Doe said in a conversation that lasted an hour, which was interrupted only once when he had to hide the phone because of an approaching corrections officer who began talking to him.
“When those two inmates that broke of (their) cells attacked the officer and had her on the ground trying to take the keys, there was an inmate that was cleaning the building and passing out food,” he said.
“He and a few inmates helped the officer from being attacked and assisted her to safety. These same inmates helped this officer are members of the Vice Lords organization that the Mississippi Department of Corrections claims to be so bad.”
Prison officials have blamed the violence on gang warfare but they have not said anything about the officers enabling it all by unlocking cell doors which we wrote about here and was also confirmed by the USDOJ report.
They also blame the violence on the smuggled phones but that is only because the phones make it difficult for them to control the narrative.
“There is a lot of misinformation fanning the flames of fear in the community at large, especially on social media,” Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall stated in a press release earlier this year shortly after announcing her resignation.
But Inmate Doe said the misinformation is coming from prison officials because he said about 15 inmates have been died across the state since the holidays, a figure repeated by others who we’ve been interviewing. The official figure is six.
There are also many inmates who were injured in the violence still waiting for medical attention, he said. He also believes many inmates are dying by drinking contaminated water from the sink.
Much of what Inmate Doe told us was confirmed in the USDOJ report.
Prior to the violence breaking out, Inmate Doe was housed in the prison’s Unit 29 where the only running water was brown and smelled like sewer water. About 1,000 of the state’s most violent offenders are housed in Unit 29, according to the Clarion-Ledger.
But thanks to all the leaked photos and videos, the unit was deemed unsafe and the prison was forced to move inmates to other units.
Inmate Doe was moved to Unit 32 which was shutdown in 2010 after it was deemed unsafe and uninhabitable but reopened just to house inmates from the other unsafe unit.
Instead of brown contaminated water, there was no running water in Unit 32, he said. Not to drink. Not to shower. And not to flush the toilet.
The cell doors were left open in Unit 32 and the prisoners were free to walk into anybody’s cell. More than 20 inmates were crammed into various cells just to keep warm from body heat because they were not given a blanket until the last day in Unit 32. The guards also waited till the day before transferring back to Unit 29 to provide only one roll of toilet paper to share between the 20 prisoners.
Leaked videos show inmates crammed into overcrowded cells with no running water and clogged-up toilets, forcing them to defecate on trays and into plastic bags.
These conditions are nothing new for Parchman. In 1972, inmates at Parchman sued to end the “trusty system” where inmates were entrusted with guns to ensure other inmates do the forced labor like picking cotton.
The lawsuit, Gates vs Collier, was supposed to bring an end to this outdated style of incarceration but it’s obvious nothing much has changed.
“Don’t matter what we did to get here, we people too. We start as kids, but we grow up.”
Read more about the history of Parchman in this PBS report. Watch the leaked videos here.
Carlos Miller contributed to this report.
One of the videos was taken during the outages.
A video was also leaked to Pinac News, exclusively by another source of a conversation between a guard and a prisoner.