Mississippi's governor is shutting down a unit inside the prison where 9 inmates have died
By Christina Maxouris, CNN
(CNN) -- Mississippi's newly sworn-in governor vowed Monday to help "turn the page" for the state's prison system following the deaths of multiple inmates within the past month and a lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates over prison conditions.
"All Mississippians must be able to trust that the people in charge of the system are acting with competence to keep them safe," Gov. Tate Reeves said during his state of the state speech. "We must be able to trust that the corrections officers operating these prisons have the tools that they need to do their jobs and that they are compensated fairly."
The governor said he recently visited the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where nine prisoner deaths have taken place in the past month, some by hanging and some following altercations within the facility.
Parchman holds about 3,600 of the state's 19,000 inmates.
"The problems were infuriating, there is no excuse," Reeves said. "We can do better."
On Sunday, the prison announced the death of 26-year-old inmate Joshua Norman, who was found hanging in his one-man cell in the prison's Unit 29. At least two other inmates were found hanging in the same unit.
Reeves said Monday he has instructed the Mississippi Department of Corrections to shut down Unit 29, which he called
-- "the most notorious unit."
He said while there are still many "logistical questions" about what that process will look like, the change was necessary in order for the state to begin moving in the right direction.
In June, state Department of Health environmental administrator Rayford Horton issued a lengthy report about the conditions at Parchman and highlighted several serious issues within Unit 29.
The unit's kitchen, for instance, had a missing soap dispenser, stopped-up garbage disposal, milk and food with no expiration dates, a fly trap "covered with flies," a ceiling leaking above a dishwasher and food that needed to be removed from a moldy, 75-degree cooler.
Search for a new leader
Meanwhile, Reeves also announced that a team of experts is on a nationwide hunt for the next leader of the corrections department.
Pelicia E. Hall, the department's former commissioner, announced her resignation last month saying she had accepted a position in the private sector.
"Since early March 2015, I have been focused on progressively moving the Mississippi Department of Corrections forward," she said in her December statement. "While there have been many challenges, my administration has kept its focus on that goal."
Hall had asked for $22.5 million in her fiscal 2021 budget request in order to repair Unit 29, which she wrote in an August budget letter has "become unsafe for staff and inmates due to age and general deterioration."
She had also asked for another $35.6 million to fill about 800 vacant positions at three state prisons. Even with a 3% pay increase in July, Hall said in an earlier statement, salaries of Mississippi correction officers are the lowest in the country.
Inmates ask for emergency protective order
A recent lawsuit filed on behalf of more than two dozen inmates is also targeting the conditions of state prisons.
Yo Gotti and Team Roc -- the philanthropic arm of Jay-Z's entertainment company, Roc Nation -- were able to get legal representation for the inmates to be able to sue, Yo Gotti's publicist previously told CNN.
In a new motion, the inmates asked for an emergency protective order to allow an independent agency to take over running the day-to-day operations of the prison.
The 94-page motion includes redacted statements from Parchman inmates and a statement from Registered Environmental Health Specialist and Registered Sanitarian Debra Graham.
One inmate statement says that because the prison is understaffed, some inmates feel at risk when housed with more violent ones. Other statements detailneglect from the guards, problems with the food, rats, mold and cell leaks.
In her statement, Graham says that "sewage that has risen from the plumbing system into the living and eating quarters of the inmates poses a severe irreparable and immediate threat to the inmates safety, health, and life."
"Risk of sewage of this type and degree has... serious and even lethal health risks," Graham said.
CNN has reached out to the Mississippi Department of Corrections and Reeves for comments on the emergency motion.
The initial lawsuit, filed earlier this month, said that the state has increased its number of inmates but "dramatically reduced its funding of prisons."
"These inhumane conditions are unconstitutional," the suit says. "The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment and is violated when prison officials fail to protect against prison-related violence and when prison conditions fail to meet basic human needs."
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