Court dismisses historic Miss. prison cruelty case

Published 2:55 pm Friday, March 18, 2011

A federal court in Mississippi has permanently dismissed a 1971 lawsuit filed against the state over prison conditions.

The case found that a range of corporal punishment practices used against prisoners at Parchman violated the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.

“Conditions for confinement were atrocious in 1970 and that was especially true of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman,” Mississippi corrections commissioner Christopher Epps said in a news release Wednesday.  “The MDOC has worked for 40 years to alleviate these conditions with a special emphasis during the last nine years.”

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The court said that Mississippi has reformed its prison system to make facilities more humane and to protect inmates from such systemic abuses, according to a March 10 order.

“The final dismissal of the suit is the result of 40 years of improvements within the culture of the state prison system and good faith cooperation among the state, the federal government, and plaintiffs,” Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, said Wednesday.

Margaret Winter, the associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, singled out Epps for credit in reforming Parchman, though she could not address the dismissal order specifically.

“In our work with the Department of Corrections over the past few years I have strong belief in Commissioner Epps’ commitment to making things right,” Winter said.

She also lauded MDOC’s steps to minimize the use of solitary confinement, among other reforms.

The court commended the National Prison Project for its work on behalf of inmates in the case.

The dismissal covers all “state-owned, state-operated and private company contracted facilities,” said U.S. Magistrate Jerry A. Davis

It does not end the portion of the suit dealing with county jails.

The court believes the case to be the oldest on any district court docket in the United States.

“Mississippi, while very rich in many areas of life, has limited resources to spend on matters the public deem important, such as education, health care, roads, public safety, and the like,” Davis said in the ruling. “Prisons, unfortunately, do not rank high on the priority list for funding.”

The judge said state residents should not worry their prisons have been turned into “country clubs.”

“They are prisons where no citizen wishes to be incarcerated,” Davis said. “However, they are humane and do not systematically subject the inmates to ’cruel and inhuman punishment.’”

The case dates back to 1971, when U.S. District Judge William Keady ordered the state to clean up deplorable conditions at the Parchman prison in the Mississippi Delta. The state has spent millions of dollars over the years on new buildings, prisons and community work centers.