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Inmates at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman say chronic staff shortages and rampant violence have led some prisoners to insert their own catheters, treat their own stab wounds and suffer through seizures without medication.
In many instances, there is one guard for every 160 inmates, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Greeneville, Mississippi.
The suit is the second filed in as many months with the help of rappers Jay-Z, real name Shawn Carter, and Yo Gotti, real name Mario Mims, who have been protesting the "inhumane and dangerous conditions of confinement" in prisons. The pair on Thursday also released an open letter to Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves calling for him to shut down the facility, which they write has become "a shameful symbol of society’s moral decay."
The complaint was filed on behalf of 152 inmates who say that they are under "constant peril" at Parchman and that the environment is "so barbaric, the deprivation of health and mental health care so extreme, and the defects in security so severe, that the people confined at Parchman live a miserable and hopeless existence confronted daily by imminent risk of substantial harm in violation of their rights under the U.S. Constitution."
Parchman, the only maximum-security prison for men in the state, has more than 3,500 inmate beds and has grappled with a history of inmate abuses, corruption and racial segregation.
An inmate named Thomas Lee, 49, was so in need of mental health care that before he took his own life in January, his last words were reported to have been: "I'm tired of this s---. They don't care about me or my food. I'm about to kill myself!"
Inmates also describe rat feces, cockroaches and bird droppings contaminating their meals, as well as toilets and showers in a "perpetual state of systemic failure."
The guards, the inmates allege, have played an active role in the deteriorating conditions, failed to act out of fear for their own safety and looked the other way amid the violence. "Plaintiffs have resorted to tying their cell doors closed at night to prevent guards from allowing other inmates to enter and assault them," the suit says.
Since Dec. 29, at least 18 people have died in Mississippi state prisons, some as the result of gang-related rioting and suicide, officials said. Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States.
Across the state's prison system, the string of violent deaths and lockdowns and protests outside the Mississippi Capitol to "shut it down" have caught the attention of the U.S. Justice Department, which announced this month that it will review conditions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, as well at as the South Mississippi Correctional Institute, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility and the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.
Prison reform advocates have said that it's unusual for the Justice Department to look at four prisons at one time rather than just one and that it indicates how entrenched and immediate the problems remain.
The first lawsuit, filed in January with the help of Jay-Z and his philanthropic arm, Team ROC, was on behalf of 29 prisoners, but the staggering number of plaintiffs in this latest suit underscores the deepening crisis. Reeves, a Republican who took office in January, has said he would close Unit 29 at Parchman — which has been plagued by health inspection violations from inoperable toilets and sinks to missing pillows and mattresses to no lights.
Roc Nation, the entertainment agency founded by Jay-Z, also released a video on YouTube that features interviews with family members of those who have recently died in Mississippi's prisons and scenes from the inside of unsanitary conditions.
The state Corrections Department said Wednesday it does not comment on pending litigation.
In the open letter to Reeves, which was published in The New York Times and the Clarion Ledger, Jay-Z and Yo Gotti ask him to take "bold and immediate action."
"These men, many of whom are serving sentences for non-violent crimes, live under the constant threat of violence while they are being deprived of even the smallest amount of dignity," they write, adding, "If animals in the Jackson Zoo were treated in such a way you would immediately shutter it and launch an investigation."
Reeves office did not immediately return a request for comment.
Last week, the governor told reporters that Unit 29 would be closed in the coming weeks as inmates are transferred to other facilities, including to the private Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility about 5 miles away. The unit has about 1,000 inmates assigned to it.
"The problems were infuriating," Reeves said after touring Parchman in January. "There is no excuse. We can do better."
The latest suit asks the Corrections Department to create a plan to eliminate health and safety risks within 90 days.
It also seeks for the court to retain full jurisdiction of the prison until the department has "fully remedied the situation and ensured a safe, livable environment."