Rapper Pens Letter to Mississippi Governor As Inmate Deaths Rock State's Prisons

Memphis-born rapper Yo Gotti and Team Roc penned a letter to Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves (R) urging him to address the “humanitarian crisis” occurring in the state’s prisons as Ten inmates have died in prisons across Mississippi in just the last three weeks.

Yo Gotti, who was born Mario Mims, released the letter in a full-page ad in The Clarion-Ledger on January 22. The letter asked the governor to declare a state of emergency a day after two inmates were beaten to death inside Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. The maximum-security prison, known for its horrid conditions, has been on lockdown since late December.

“We are not asking for [the inmates] to serve one less day than they are required,” the letter stated, according to a copy cited by CBS News. “We are merely asking that they be able to serve out their sentences as human beings and not animals.”

The rapper had previously joined forces with Jay-Z’s Team Roc, Roc Nation’s social justice arm, in a push for prison reform in Mississippi. On January 14, they announced that they were hiring legal representation for 29 inmates who are suing the head of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) and the warden of the state penitentiary over prison conditions.

Governor Reeves, who took office last week, said on January 21 that his office has been working “around the clock” to prevent further inmate deaths. “There is much more to be done here,” he tweeted. The new governor also launched a search committee to find a new MDOC commissioner, The New York Times reported.

The Republican governor has not yet responded publicly to Yo Gotti and Team Roc’s open letter. His office did not immediately respond to The North Star’s request for comment.

Inmate Deaths

Ten Mississippi inmates have died in the last month, including one who was found “dead by apparent suicide in his one-man cell at the Mississippi State Penitentiary” on Janauary 22. The Sunflower County coroner said that this death appeared to be by hanging, according to an MDOC statement. An investigation into this most recent death is ongoing. The inmate was not identified.

The “apparent suicide” came one day after two men were killed following a fight with other inmates at the same prison, MDOC said. The inmates were identified as Timothy Hudspeth, a 35-year-old serving a 10-year sentence for possession of a firearm by a felon, and James Talley, a 36-year-old serving an 11-year sentence for aggravated assault and possession of a firearm by a felon.

The two men appeared to have died due to blunt force beating injuries, Sunflower County Coroner Heather Burton said according to the Clarion-Ledger.

“Thus far, investigators have determined that the conflict that resulted in these two deaths is unrelated to the recent series of killings within the prison system,” MDOC said in a statement. Interim Commissioner Tommy Taylor said that the “environment that makes such violence possible must be addressed quickly.”

An inmate fight at South Mississippi Correctional Institution in late December 2019 led MDOC officials to announce a statewide prison lockdown. The fight left one inmate dead and two others injured, the Clarion-Ledger reported. The lockdown failed to stop additional rioting and fighting, which left another four inmates dead across the state.

In total, eight incarcerated men at Parchman have died this month, the newspaper reported. Five were killed by other inmates, one died at a hospital of natural causes and two apparent suicides.

Officials blame gangs for the violence within the prisons, but activists say repeated budget cuts and chronic understaffing have resulted in a chaotic environment and unsafe living conditions. A group of civil rights organizations called for a federal investigation into the conditions at the state prisons.

Mississippi Prisons vs Prisons Across the U.S.

A May 2019 ranking by U.S. News & World Report found Mississippi has the third-highest overall incarceration rate in the U.S. at 624 per 100,000 people. Only Oklahoma and Louisiana have higher incarceration rates.

The state’s incarceration rates have been on a steady rise since the 1980s, according to data analyzed by the Prison Policy Initiative. The number of men incarcerated in Mississippi prisons hit 1,173 per 100,000 in 2015 compared to less than 400 per 100,000 in the 1980s. Meanwhile the number of women incarcerated dropped to 78 per 100,000 that same year.

As is the case nationwide, people of color are overrepresented in prisons and jails in Mississippi. Data from 2010 showed that Hispanics were incarcerated at a rate of 4,869 per 100,000 people, Blacks at a rate of 1,788 per 100,000 and Native Americans/Alaska Native at a rate of 1,031 per 100,000. Meanwhile, white people in Mississippi were incarcerated at a rate of just 600 per 100,000.

Blacks and Latinxs in particular were overrepresented in prisons and jails compared to the overall population. Although Black people made up 37 percent of the state’s population in 2010, they were 57 percent of the incarcerated population. Similarly, Latinxs made up just 3 percent of the state population yet are 12 percent of the prison and jail population.

What You Can Do

A group of organizations have announced a prison reform rally to spread awareness of the conditions within the state’s prisons for Friday, January 24. Until Freedom, one of Team Roc’s partner organizations, revealed on Instagram that the rally is scheduled for 11 a.m. near the state capital. An exact location has not been determined.

“Let your voice be heard as we hold MDOC and the state of Mississippi accountable for their treatment of prisoners at Parchman Prison and all other facilities,” the organization said in its post.

Those who cannot make the rally are encouraged to sign a petition at teamroc.io/msreform.

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About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.