Everything you need to know about the Mississippi Prison Crisis

The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) said on Monday, March 2 that a third person inside of a Mississippi state prison has died. There have been 22 deaths inside of Mississippi state prisons since December 29. The staggering deaths are part of an ongoing prison crisis in the state.

MDOC said in a press release that Patricia Wilhite, 68, died at the Baptist Medical Center in Jackson on Monday morning. Wilhite, who was incarcerated at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County since 1998, was serving life in prison. There is no suspected foul play in Wilhite’s death, but an autopsy will determine the official cause of death.

Two people died in the hospital at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. On Saturday, February 29, the MDOC identified one of the individuals as 61-year-old Timothy Sharp, the Clarion-Ledger previously reported. Sharp, who was serving a 20-year sentence for child molestation and sexual battery, died on Thursday, February 27, and was set to be released in October, according to the publication.

The second person was identified as Paul Joseph Capps, 70, according to a statement obtained by The North Star from MDOC. Capps, who died on Friday, February 28, was convicted of statutory rape and had been in prison since May 29, 2008. There was no foul play determined in the deaths and an autopsy will determine the manner of death in each case.

The Deaths at Parchman

Sharp and Capps are just two of the 15 people who have died at the state prison since December 29. Deadly violence in state prison facilities have erupted since December and have highlighted just some of the abuses people serving time in the prison endure.

Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the U.S., following states like Louisiana and Oklahoma. Parchman is the only maximum-security prison for men in the state and has 3,500 beds for incarcerated people.

In a span of three days the first week of January, three incarcerated people were killed at Parchman and two other incarcerated individuals died at other state prisons, NBC News previously reported. The violent deaths and the prison reform advocates protesting outside of the Mississippi Capitol have caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice. In February, the department announced that it would review the Mississippi State Penitentiary, the South Mississippi Correctional Institute, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility and the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, according to NBC.

Rappers like Jay-Z and Yo Gotti also got involved. In January, the rappers, along with Team Roc wrote a letter to Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves (R) urging him to declare a state of emergency following the deaths of two incarcerated people who were brutally beaten inside Parchman. That same month, the rappers filed a lawsuit with the help of Team ROC, Jay-Z’s philanthropic organization, on behalf of 29 prisoners.

On February 26, Jay-Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter, and Yo Gotti, whose birth name is Mario Mims, helped 152 people file a second lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections over the “barbaric” conditions people at Parchman must endure.

“Parchman has been understaffed and underfunded for decades. As a result, prisoners endure abhorrent conditions, abuse and constant violence, inadequate health care and mental health care, and overuse of isolation. The conditions of confinement at Parchman are so barbaric, the deprivation of health and mental health care so extreme, and the defects in security 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,” the suit read.

The suit also included a second letter to Governor Reeves, where the rappers called the facility “a shameful symbol of society’s moral decay.”

“Mississippians are compassionate people, understanding of history and determined not to repeat it. Its governor should realize that history cannot be painted over, no matter how hard you try,” the letter obtained by NBC News read.

What We Can Do

The Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition (MPRC), a local prison reform organization, told The North Star that the abuses experienced inside state prisons is nothing new, but there were a total of 80 deaths in MDOC custody in 2018.

“However, in 2018 there was total of 80 deaths in MDOC custody in 2018. Now we’re up to 22 deaths in MDOC custody today as of December 29 [2019]. With the recent outbreak of violence on December 29, it underscores the urgency of enacting systemic reform to protect the people and employees at DOC,” said Lea Campbell of the MPRC Steering Committee.

Melissa Garriga, the media specialist for MPRC, said that it isn’t just Parchman that is dealing with abuses and violations. In January, Reeves said that he would shut down Unit 29 at Parchman, which has been cited for health inspection violations for issues like broken toilets and sinks, USA Today reported. Garriga called his promise “hollow.”

“He is given a little something out there because of recent news but like we said, this problem is systemic. It’s not just Unit 29 and it’s not just Parchman, and he’s known that. He has been a part of the underfunding for the past eight years as lieutenant governor,” Garriga told TNS.

Campbell urged activists and folks to call their senators and representatives to voice their support for comprehensive prison reform.

“We want folks to call their legislators and voice their support in the expectation that their legislature would also support these bills,” Campbell said.

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.