- Jody Owensdirector and managing attorney of the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Prisoners are dying at the highest rates the state of Mississippi has ever seen. Thirteen prisoners have died behind bars in the month of August alone. That’s compared to 47 prisoner deaths in Mississippi in the entire year of 2015. Prison officials insist the deaths are by natural causes. But advocates and family members are demanding answers for the shocking spike in prisoner deaths, including the killing of 24 year-old Nija Syvallus Bonhomme at the privately run Wilkinson County Correctional Center in southwestern Mississippi. Bonhomme died in his cell after what officials say was a fight with another prisoner. But his family says that the prison failed to protect him from violent conditions that led to his death, allowing him to return to his cell after a violent altercation with his cellmate. His sister told Democracy Now!, “They threw him back to the dogs.” We speak with Jody Owens, director and managing attorney of the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, part of a recent lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections alleging grave abuses of prisoner rights at a private prison.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We now go to Mississippi, where prisoners are dying at the highest rates the state has ever seen. Thirteen prisoners have died behind bars in the month of August alone. That’s compared to 47 prisoner deaths in Mississippi in the entire year of 2015. Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall has insisted the deaths are by natural causes, and told reporters, quote, “The number of deaths the department is reporting is not out of line with the number of deaths in previous months,” end-quote.
But advocates and family members are demanding answers for the shocking spike in prisoner deaths, including the killing of 24-year-old Nija Syvallus Bonhomme at the privately run Wilkinson County Correctional Facility in southwest Mississippi. Bonhomme died in his cell after what officials say was a fight with another prisoner. But his family says that the prison failed to protect him from violent conditions that led to his death, allowing him to return to his cell after a violent altercation with his cellmate. His sister told Democracy Now!, quote, “They threw him back to the dogs.”
AMY GOODMAN: The unprecedented number of deaths in Mississippi prisons comes as prisoners across the nation are striking to demand improved living conditions, greater access to resources and the end of what prisoners are calling modern-day slavery. We’ll have more on the strike later in the broadcast.
But first we go to Jackson, Mississippi, to speak with Jody Owens, director and managing attorney of the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, part of a recent lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections alleging grave abuses of prisoner rights at a private prison. I spoke with Jody on Wednesday, asked him to respond to the spike in prisoner deaths in Mississippi.
JODY OWENS: We’re astonished by the increase in deaths this year. Last year, the numbers went up from 2017—from 2016, and we continue to see a spike. And we’ve been doing prison litigation work in Mississippi for almost a decade, and we’ve not seen numbers this high ever.
AMY GOODMAN: What is happening? What is causing this spike?
JODY OWENS: Well, it’s a combination of several factors. I mean, you mentioned our trial, that we tried the lawsuit with the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center in March and February. Even during that trial, there were four deaths at the privately run facility, East Mississippi Correctional Facility, during trial. So, can you imagine, we were trying a lawsuit, and people were successful in committing suicide, successful in—one was a violent death. And often, too often, these deaths that we’re seeing that happened this month, is that the prisons are discouraging health expenditures. So individuals, when they desperately need help, they find themselves getting medical help to a hospital at the last minute, and often too late.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us the story of Nija Syvallus Bonhomme. What happened to him? And where was he? What was the prison facility? Who ran it?
JODY OWENS: Well, he was at the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, which is a private facility. It was previously managed and operated by the GEO Corporation, and now it’s managed by the company out of Utah called Management and Training Corporation. And in Mississippi, throughout—and similarly, throughout the country, the private facilities are generally the worst and most violent facilities, because they’re generally understaffed, purposefully, so that gangs control the facilities, in which case the officers cannot respond to incidents. In this instance, this 24-year-old young man lost his life due to a fight with another inmate. Oftentimes it’s very difficult to get any information about what happens in these prisons. They have no constituency. They have no champion. They have no legislative or city council support. So these fights and these murders go very often unchecked.
AMY GOODMAN: His family said he was told to carry a knife in jail, not by the other prisoners, but by a guard, and that he was in a dangerous cell, knew it, complained. They took him out of the cell because of the other prisoner in the cell, then put him back into it. And that’s when he was attacked. That’s when that fight happened and he was killed.
JODY OWENS: The sad thing about that, if you—just a simple Google search of Mississippi Department of Corrections contraband will show, you know, hundreds of hundreds of knives and cellphones and weapons and even axe-like items that have been confiscated. And the commissioner, Commissioner Hall, boasts that we’re getting the weapons out of the prison.
But no one has the foresight or the leadership to ask, “Why are there so many weapons in prison? And why do people feel so unsafe?” And then there’s a group of individuals who would tell you that, “Well, it’s prison. They have to protect themselves.” Well, not if you actually have a prison that’s constitutional and protects people from harm and provides safety and security. People don’t have to do that. But if you’re in a place where—several of our guys will tell you, in Parchman Farms or in East Mississippi, it’s a hundred, 150 guys with no staff or one staff member. They have to protect themselves because the prisons will not. Mississippi is failing to meet her obligation to provide constitutional, safe prisons. And as a result, it’s every man or woman for themselves.
AMY GOODMAN: This was a private prison?
JODY OWENS: Correct, it was a private prison.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the difference between the private and the public prisons in Mississippi.
JODY OWENS: Well, Mississippi has three public prisons—Parchman Farms, a notorious old slave camp; CMCF, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. And then we also have the three privates, which are Marshall County, Wilkinson County and East Mississippi.
Now, supposedly, private facilities are supposed to run prisons cheaper, 10 percent cheaper than the public facilities could. But we find that not to be the case. We find that they never fill their staffing guidelines, while all the while they’re being paid every day, per day, per inmate. So they are incentivized, one, to keep inmates as long as possible, and they also are incentivized to be profitable, while providing this public service. And the only way they can be profitable is to be understaffed. And the only way you can run a prison and be understaffed is to let gangs and individuals play the role of your guards, for safety and security, which is no safety and is no security.
We know that in Mississippi, just like throughout the nation, we have serious contraband problems. A lot of our deaths in prison in our private facilities are overdosing on drugs. We have a spice epidemic in Mississippi’s prison. We know those drugs and that contraband is being brought in directly to the prisoners through the staff, largely because the staff are so underpaid and so poorly treated. They’re forced to work double shifts and overtime shifts to fill what’s called mandatory post for staffing. But the reality is, it’s a heavily dominated female staff, largely, guarding a male prison population and not having the resources to be successful or be safe themselves. So they often are compromised just to survive, because the job is so poorly valued and so poorly compensated that we find that it is an epidemic of a very serious system that’s set to fail.
And what’s really sad about Mississippi’s population, not undifferent than many populations throughout the country, is that half of these individuals are nonviolent. Nicole Rathman is the one female prisoner who passed away this month. She just got paroled July 1st; she hadn’t got released yet. Young lady who was a nonviolent offender, who suffered from drug addiction. She contacted our office. We had worked with legislators to work on her parole. But you need to appreciate that these are nonviolent offenders who are dying. These are not people that we are scared of if they were free. These are people who need help. And because of Mississippi’s incredibly weak mental health system on getting people the services for addiction in drug courts, they find themselves locked up and often dying in prison.
AMY GOODMAN: The IWW Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, the organizing committee of the prison strike across the country, tweeted, “Why #prisonstrike? Because at this point it’s about survival.” How aware are you of this strike in prisons around the country?
JODY OWENS: We’re very aware. We’ve seen it in Mississippi. We’ve seen this strike unfold, and we think it’s a positive thing. The only time a suppressed group of individuals, whether they be prisoners or civil rights workers, will ever any rights is if they take ownership of it.
This forced labor, this so-called slave labor, it has to be explained appropriately. Individuals are getting paid pennies for the hour, dollars for a day’s work, at best, for hard manual labor, far below minimum wage, far below any livable wage. And when they get out of prison, they’re not getting anything for their labor, for their hard wear and tear on their body. And this practice has to stop. Individuals working for free to benefit counties, to benefit states, but not being compensated for it, is unfair. And when given the alternative, to sit in solitary confinement in a cell, when you can go outside and mow a lawn, well, individuals want programming, they want something to do.
But the strike is focused on a few things. People deserve some level of wages for working. That’s undisputed. In any other atmosphere in the country, it would be illegal. It should be illegal for prisoners. Secondly, they want programming and better conditions of confinement. Individuals are striking. Can you only imagine what it it takes for an individual who’s in prison, who can’t pick and choose? They can’t go to a store to eat, or a fast-food restaurant. They’re saying, “I’m not going to eat the food you’re feeding me, because I’d rather be sick, I’d rather not be what you need me to be, than pretend that you’re treating me well.” That’s a powerful statement, for individuals realizing that we have such an economic value to this county or to this city that you’re exploiting us as cheap labor. I mean, that’s why it’s called slavery. And that’s why it should be a tone to free labor. And it’s not right. There should be a system in place that we can work on that fairly compensates inmates for the labor they provide. So what we want them to do is, when they are released, they can succeed, they can pay rent, they may have some money saved up, or they can support their families. We’re not asking them to be paid some exorbitant salaries; we’re asking them to be paid decent wages for the work that they do.
AMY GOODMAN: How often are there strikes in Mississippi prisons? I mean, this is a nationwide strike, and the media has hardly—the corporate media—covered it. But how often does this happen behind bars in your state, Jody?
JODY OWENS: Yeah, we’ve seen the strike episodically start. It obviously takes organization. This strike and larger strikes in Georgia and in Texas, what we’ve seen is that, interesting enough, inmates have been able to coordinate them through using contraband cellphones. I think I’ve seen one in Mississippi, either by a prison or by a small group of individuals, at least yearly in Mississippi.
You’re right, it does not get the attention it deserves, because, you know, the mentality in Mississippi and far too often throughout the country is that: “Who cares about these individuals? How are they affecting me?” If you don’t have a loved one or know someone who’s incarcerated, you rarely keep up or know what’s happening in prisons, so you don’t see it. But then, suddenly, when you see that, you know, for some reason the highway grass is no longer being cut, or something that was cleaned by prisoners is not happening, suddenly then people will start asking questions from politicians and people. And then people want to get involved about what’s really happening. But far too often this most vulnerable population of individuals, who are actually paying a debt to society, are not thought of in a manner that reflects their suffering and their well-being.
AMY GOODMAN: Jody Owens, what does a strike inside a Mississippi prison look like?
JODY OWENS: Yeah, the strikes that we’ve been involved in Mississippi is individuals refusing to eat, refusing to work. You know, you can imagine that when you bring food—and what’s interesting about it is that when you bring food to individuals, most of the services in these prisons are contracted out. So, for instance, in Mississippi, another corporate company, Trinity Services, provides food for a lot of the companies. They’re contracts. They’re ways that people, private companies make money off the incarceration of people.
The same thing applies to healthcare services. Centurion, another national company, a privately held corporation, provides all the healthcare for Mississippians, which is why it’s so significant about [inaudible] and even the excuse that these are chronic illnesses. Mississippi must ask our private contractors, Centurion, to do the studies, the mortality rate, to determine why people are dying in their prisons and what remedial actions they can do to reduce the risk.
Strikes are no different. When we find the individuals who are refusing to eat are lethargic, that’s a healthcare concern. That’s a public crisis. People are—you have to eat to survive and to live. You have to drink. People are willing to say, “I can’t live under these circumstances, so I would rather die.” And when you see multiple individuals doing so, you’re asking, frankly, guards and prisons and Mississippians to acknowledge that we don’t care if these people die. There’s 20,000 people who are currently incarcerated in Mississippi. And you’re acknowledging or you’re accepting that the situation is so bad, they won’t eat. So, it’s a cry for help. You know, it’s a cry for help. And unfortunately, the people who see it most are the guards, who are the underpaid and overworked there—not social workers, not the politicians, not the governor, not the MDOC Commission. They don’t see it firsthand. They get a report on it, and they’re asked, “What can we do?” But it’s a bigger issue than that. If people are willing to die because conditions are so bad, what does it say about us?
AMY GOODMAN: That was Jody Owens, director and managing attorney of the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaking about the 13 prisoner deaths in Mississippi this month alone, including Nija Syvallus Bonhomme, who died in his cell after what officials say was a fight with another prisoner. His family is calling for justice. After break, we’ll have more on the prison strike, which has spread to at least 11 states. Stay with us.