Epps: Parchman ‘in better shape’ after changes in Unit 32

Published 3:27 am Sunday, October 21, 2007

Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps has fired guards, lifted restrictions for some inmates and introduced more rehabilitative programs after three inmates were killed this summer at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

“We’re in better shape, in my opinion, at Parchman than we have been in a long time,” Epps said.

The prison’s super-maximum security Unit 32 has been the center of court action for years. There have been three homicides and a suicide in the 1,000-man unit since May 30.

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The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Mississippi Department of Corrections in 2005 on behalf of inmates held in Unit 32. The suit, which resulted in a consent decree, claimed inmates were held in brutal conditions, confined in isolation 23 hours a day and subjected to abuse by guards.

ACLU lawyers held said many inmates were mentally ill when they arrived and more developed problems after years of inhumane treatment.

Epps said this past week that about half the inmates in the unit are allowed out of their solitary cells for five or more hours a day. He said the prison is providing alcohol- and drug-abuse treatment and educational and religious programming.

Some Unit 32 inmates now are working in Parchman’s agriculture programs, and others are being given recreational opportunities.

The commissioner’s assessment of progress comes a month before a scheduled federal court hearing to determine whether the state is in violation of the consent decree to improve conditions at Unit 32.

Margaret Winter, a lawyer with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, praised the recent improvements. Epps and Deputy Commissioner Emmitt Sparkman have “shown a lot of leadership” in attacking problems at the prison, she said.

“We were there with a couple of experts last week and there are some very far-reaching and important changes happening,” she said. “We’re still holding our breath that all of this is going to be firmly implemented, but the signs are just tremendously encouraging. There has been a kind of collaboration that I think is rare.”

Epps said four correctional officers in Unit 32 have been fired for alleged ties to street gangs, including a lieutenant Epps said was a member of the Vice Lords.

Epps would not name the lieutenant because a hearing on the officer’s firing still is pending, but Epps identified him as the officer in charge July 25 when seven Unit 32 inmates broke out of their exercise pens and attacked three other inmates with homemade knives.

Inmate Donald Reed Jr. died after being stabbed at least 14 times. Epps said the lieutenant’s claim he panicked and dropped the keys in the pen did not hold up to scrutiny.

“We found it real hard to believe that he took off running and the keys just fell off his key chain,” he said.

Epps said the attack was part of a struggle between rival gangs.

Epps said the three other officers had ties to the Gangster Disciples street gang, including former officer Marcus Fairley, who was fired July 17 after a .380 semiautomatic pistol and two clips of ammunition were found inside the cell of a Unit 32 inmate. Fairley said he found the gun and alerted his supervisor, but Epps said the gun was to be used to kill another inmate in the Vice Lords.

Epps would not say if he has cleared the prison of guards with gang connections, but he said screening for gang members has become more thorough.