Inmates in Unit 29 of the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman used a cellphone to describe the recent turmoil in the facility to outsiders. “Mold everywhere, rats everywhere,” said one inmate. He had paid $600 for the smartphone. If caught with it, years could be tacked onto his already lengthy sentence, the New York Times reports. During an hour-long call with a reporter, inmates complained about unreliable electricity and water, injuries that had not healed, and vermin that forced them to hang leftover food from the ceiling. Parchman, the oldest Mississippi prison, with a notorious reputation for harsh conditions, has descended into dilapidation and chaos, including a burst of violence that left several inmates dead.
Inmates have used illegal cellphones to transmit images of inmates fighting, broken toilets, holes in walls, dangling wires and dead rodents caught in sticky traps that have defined the crisis in Mississippi. Prisons are rife with smuggled cellphones, allowing inmates access to the internet, social media and their old lives outside the walls. Officials said inmates have used the phones to stir unrest, and by gangs to orchestrate attacks on rivals. Officials said the pervasiveness of cellphones — nearly 12,000 were seized in Mississippi in 2018 — threatens security and has undermined the notion of incarceration. “There is a lot of misinformation fanning the flames of fear in the community at large, especially on social media,” said state corrections commissioner Pelicia Hall. “Cellphones are contraband and have been instrumental in escalating the violence.” It has been nearly impossible for officials to curb cellphones, as they have been difficult to ferret out. “As fast as you take them out, they’re back in,” said Martin Horn, a former corrections official in New York City and Pennsylvania who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.