Justice Department opens probe into Mississippi prisons

Feb. 5 (UPI) — The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division announced Wednesday it has opened an investigation into conditions at four Mississippi prisons after 15 inmates have died in the state’s custody since December.

The investigation will focus on whether the Mississippi Department of Corrections properly protects prisoners from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners at the four prisons, the Justice Department said in a statement.

Authorities said they will also investigate whether there is adequate suicide prevention including mental health care and appropriate use of isolation as punishment at Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman — the location where the majority of the 15 deaths have occurred.

The other three facilities under probe are Southern Mississippi Correctional Institute, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility and the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.

The most recent death to occur was that of Jesus Garcia, 39, who was found dead in his cell Saturday.

“We are grateful that President Trump’s administration has taken a focused interest in criminal justice reform and that they care enough about Mississippi to engage on this critical issue,” said Renae Eze, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tate Reeves, in an emailed statement. “As we continue our own investigations, we look forward to cooperating with them and working together to right this ship.”

Late last month, Reeves vowed in his first State of the State address to close Unit 29 at Parchman.

The deaths at the prison have garnered wide attention, including from entertainment mogul Jay-Z, who filed a lawsuit mid-January on behalf of 29 inmates in the state’s penal system, accusing authorities of failing to stem violence in their facilities.

In early January, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson called on U.S. Attorney General William Barr to launch an investigation into the safety conditions at the state’s Department of Corrections.

“This is unacceptable,” Thompson said via Twitter.

In a 23-page request for the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into the prisons filed by Thompson, other local politicians and civil rights groups, they said the prison system was in “a state of acute and undeniable crisis” and has “a history of preventable deaths and injuries stretching back years.”

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