After a string of inmate deaths in Mississippi, the Justice Department announced it is opening a civil rights probe into the state’s penitentiary system. NPR reports. The department’s civil rights division will examine four Mississippi prisons, including the state penitentiary at Parchman, the state’s oldest, where a riot broke out on Dec. 29 after an inmate was killed. The all-male prison includes death row. Since December’s riot, 15 inmates have died. Officials say two of the deaths were apparent suicides by hanging and many of the others are thought to be gang-related killings. The Mississippi Department of Corrections says 29 staff have also been assaulted in the same period. The probe will focus on whether the state “adequately protects prisoners from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners at the four prisons, as well as whether there is adequate suicide prevention, including adequate mental health care and appropriate use of isolation, at Parchman,” DOJ said.
The prison violence has drawn national attention, partly because of the advocacy of entertainment figures such as hip-hop artist Mysonne and Jay-Z, whose company, Roc Nation is funding a lawsuit demanding improved conditions. A 2013 class-action lawsuit by prisoners at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility charges that the state “has operated the prison in a continuous state of crisis, neglect, and abuse for years, causing extreme and preventable suffering for thousands of prisoners in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.” Jimmy Anthony of the Mississippi Association of Gang Investigators told state lawmakers this week that gangs like the Gangster Disciples, City Royals and Vice Lords are engaged in narcotics and other criminal activity in prisons.