JACKSON, Miss. — An inmate in Mississippi’s prison system testifying in a federal lawsuit over prison conditions told the judge Thursday that he was sexually assaulted twice behind bars in less than a year.
The man, identified as “J.H.”, fought back tears as he described his ordeal as part of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center over conditions at the privately-run East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Meridian.
The Clarion-Ledger reports the inmate said he was first assaulted at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in September 2015. After that, he tried to commit suicide and was eventually transferred to EMCF, where he says he was assaulted again.
The ACLU and the law center argue that the state has been aware of dangerous conditions at EMCF, which is operated by Utah-based Management and Training Corp. But defense attorneys say the conditions are acceptable, and that some prisoners’ harm is self-inflicted.
Plaintiffs have presented reports compiled by prison staff that document conditions like inmate deaths and injuries and prison fires. According to the most recent reports presented by plaintiffs, 78 inmates were injured in June. Four inmates have died so far in 2018, and one remains in intensive care.
Asked Thursday about the deaths, Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall responded, “It is my goal that all the prisons operate in a safe and secure manner.”
During plaintiffs’ quizzing of Hall, U.S. District Court Judge William H. Barbour Jr. grew agitated, chastising what he said was repetitious and irrelevant questioning by plaintiffs’ attorneys.
“I don’t know where all this winding is going,” the judge said. “If you can’t tell me where you’re going to go, I can’t rule for you.”
Dr. Bruce Carlson Gage, who oversees mental health in the Washington state prison system, also testified, saying mental health care at EMCF is “dramatically substandard.”
“There’s a risk of harm, and there’s actual harm as well,” he said.
In the 21 medical reports that he examined, he said he saw no intensive screenings, “much less a battery of tests. I didn’t see any examples of what I would describe as a mental health assessment.”
He called the prison’s psychiatric intake “very inconsistent. … They have missed people with serious mental illness.”
He said 130 inmates qualified for individual therapy and that the prison is providing no such therapy. He also said he saw no chemical dependency treatment for the seriously mentally ill.
The judge repeatedly chastised the plaintiffs’ lawyers, asking them to shorten questioning. Finally, he asked Gage if the prison had done anything right with any patient.
Gage replied that he saw sound prescribing for mental patients, calling it “a real bright spot in the system.”
After being transferred to the private prison, J.H. testified that he spent his first few days in a holding cell with no toilet, bed or shower. To get the attention of corrections officers, he would beat on the window or kick the door, he said.
Asked if he was ever offered counseling, he replied, no.
“I was very unstable,” he said. “I had lots of suicidal thoughts.”
He was eventually transferred from the medical unit to a pod that held inmates who suffered from serious mental illnesses, he said.
Asked if he felt safe on the pod, he replied, no. “Some guys were sexually assaulting those who were mentally ill.”
He said he complained to officials in June and July 2016 about the problem, but he wasn’t transferred.
On Aug. 1, 2016, he said an inmate put a sheet up over the bars, hit him repeatedly on the back of the head and threw him down on the bed.
“He had a rock and said if I made a sound, he would beat me over the head,” he said.
He began to cry. “I was scared,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
He also said he often saw inmates wandering around when they were supposed to be locked down and that he saw inmates making weapons on a daily basis.
Under cross-examination, he said he has earned his GED at EMCF and is working on a bachelor’s degree.
Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com