JACKSON, Miss. — A warden testified Tuesday that he saw reports that document what plaintiffs argue are unconstitutionally abusive conditions at a Mississippi state prison.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Poverty Law Center are arguing that the state has been aware of dangerous conditions at East Mississippi Correctional Facility. Defense attorneys, however, say the conditions are acceptable, and that some prisoners’ harm is self-inflicted.
Located near Meridian, the prison is privately operated under contract by Utah-based Management and Training Corp.
Warden Frank Shaw oversees the day-to-day operations of the notoriously violent prison.
Plaintiffs presented evidence Tuesday of reports compiled by prison staff that documents conditions like inmate deaths and injuries and prison fires. Shaw testified that he sees the reports before they are sent to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
According to most recent reports presented by prosecutors, 78 inmates were injured in June 2017.
Four inmates have died so far in 2018, and one remains in intensive care. When asked whether he considers this a large number of deaths in a year, Shaw said, “Every corrections facility I’ve ever worked in has had a certain number of deaths.”
Fires, qualified as major or minor, are also documented. According to reports presented Tuesday, there were no fires over 11 months.
But several inmates have testified during the three weeks of the federal trial that fires are started by inmates on a daily basis, and plaintiffs have presented video evidence of such. Oftentimes, fires are started in cells to get guards’ attention.
Shaw testified that inmate fires are not documented. He said, “disaster fires” would be reported.
When asked if he considers fires started by inmates a “major problem,” Shaw said no. Video evidence of fires from 2016 and 2017 presented by prosecutors, he said, is outdated.
Plaintiffs also argued that much of the prison’s violence can be attributed to insufficient supervision.
Several inmates have testified that guards were not present during attacks or medical emergencies. Shaw testified he is ultimately responsible for ensuring mandatory security posts at the prison are filled “if at all possible.”
If guards leave their posts while on duty, Shaw said they are disciplined “depending on how often it happens and what the type of abandonment may be.”
In addition to the reports, plaintiffs showed video evidence of several incidents involving prison guards. In two incidents, they were standing back as an unrestrained inmate assaulted another. Shaw said they did so to protect their own safety.
In other videos, guards used pepper spray to subdue inmates while they were in their cells. The intention is to cause inmates pain, forcing them to subdue. Pepper spray can irritate eyes and induce coughing.
When asked if cells are decontaminated after being sprayed before inmates are put back inside, Shaw said there is not a “blanket policy on how to decontaminate a cell.” Sometimes a blower is used to air out the cell, and other times, Shaw said keeping the cell door open is enough.
Shaw is one of the state’s primary witnesses for the defense and will testify again once it begins to make its case in the coming weeks.