Private prison’s shocking treatment of mentally ill sparks lawsuit

SPLC and ACLU lawsuit  highlights dangers of privatizing prisons and failure to provide adequate treatment to mentally ill Photo: by chubiboako

WASHINGTON, DC, June 17, 2013 – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the prisoners at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF), alleging shocking human rights violations against mentally ill and special needs prisoners by the private, for-profit facility.

Intended to provide safe and humane treatment for the state’s seriously mentally ill prisoners, EMCF is described as dangerous, filthy, and  “operating in a perpetual state of crisis where prisoners are at grave risk of death and loss of limbs” with little to no medical or psychiatric attention. 

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The deplorable living conditions at EMCF are sadly not the exception.  The conditions at EMCF and other privately run prisons around the country are the result of an increasing shift in privatizing traditional government functions.  From the NSA’s international intelligence operations to schools, airports, and military operations, traditional government roles have been drifting to the public sector—and the costs may be too high. 

The class action lawsuit

The 83-page lawsuit details a catalogue of the 1,500-inmate prison’s extensive violations.   It describes a system where even rudimentary health care is denied to prisoners and where already insufficient access to psychiatric care has been further reduced.

The complaint alleges solitary confinement of seriously mentally ill prisoners in filthy cells for days, weeks, and even years at a time.  Some of the cells lack electrical lighting and access to showers or functioning toilets, “prisoners defecate into Styrofoam trays or plastic trash bags and have no way or ridding their cells of the waste other than tossing it into the housing unit through the slots in their cell doors, where it remains.”

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In an area that has come to be known as “Dead Man’s Zone,” mentally ill prisoners are locked behind solid front doors and left to fend for themselves with virtually no supervision or provision of basic needs.  According to the lawsuit, setting fires has become one of the only ways for prisoners to obtain medical attention in emergencies. 

The rat and mice problem is so out of control that some prisoners have taken to capturing, putting improvised leashes on, and selling rats to other seriously mentally ill patients to keep as pets. 

The lawsuit also alleges that hundreds of mentally ill prisoners are not given any treatment at all, which has lead to behaviors such as “babbling, throwing excrement, and staring fires,” not to mention the exacerbation of their current condition.  In 2011 there was one full-time psychiatrist at the facility, but hours were dropped to two days per week in 2012.

There is a high rate of suicide attempts among prisoners, and many are successful.  “Other prisoners engage in gross acts of self-mutilation, including electrocution, swallowing shards of glass and razors, and tearing into their flesh with sharp objects.”  

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The lawsuit alleges that the prisoners are denied even basic medical treatment.  One prisoner developed abdominal cancer after his testicular cancer was left undiagnosed and untreated despite alarming external symptoms.  Another prisoner allegedly went blind after being denied glaucoma treatment.  Prisoners are left in filthy solitary confinement cells with open wounds and other medical issues which often get worse and later require emergency interventions.

Due to understaffed security, rapes, stabbings, and beatings are also commonplace.  The complaint alleges that EMCF operator, the private for-profit Management and Training Corporation (MTC), provides inadequate training to security officers, many of whom are complicit in the violence.  The suit also claims that poor training leads security staff to use excessive force to control non-violent prisoners, including firing mace, pepper spray and other chemicals into cells and then not allowing prisoners to decontaminate or seek medical care. 

Other allegations include the mixing youth offenders as young as 16 into the general population, where at least one 16-year-old was raped.  Among numerous other claims is general malnutrition and underfeeding, where some prisoners have lost 20 to 30 pounds.

The federal lawsuit names the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC), alleging that the MDOC and its high-ranking officials, responsible for the health and safety of prisoners, have known of the conditions at EMFC but have failed to take reasonable action to protect them.   MTC is not named as a defendant in the suit.

According to the prison staff, conditions have improved since MTC took over the facility 18 months ago, but ACLU and SPLC representatives disagree, holding that conditions have worsened since MTC took over.

The problems with privatizing traditional government roles

The shift in responsibilities from government to for-profit corporations makes correction purely a business. This comes without proper oversight and creates huge opportunities for abuse.  Unfortunately, privatized prison systems are the perfect example of the exploitation that can occur when profit is the ultimate goal and there is no government supervision to ensure that the rights of citizens are protected. 

In a system where many are incarcerated for minor drug and immigration offenses and a federal prison population that has grown 790% since 1980, states are increasingly turning to the private sector to alleviate prison-crowding problems.  A large portion of the $50 billion annually spent on corrections is now going to private contractors like MTC at the expense of the prisoners’ welfare and lives.    

Under the current conditions, prisons are not places of rehabilitation but places that turn non-violent offenders into toughened criminals, for which a criminal record becomes a hindrance to obtaining employment and reentering law-abiding society. 

Moreover, prisons have “become de facto mass institutions for the mentally ill.”  As state budgets shrink, mental health services are among the hardest hit, and the mentally ill are incarcerated at disproportionate rates and generally provided with little to no treatment.  On the other hand, private prison profits skyrocket.   

This case starkly highlights the ugliest parts of the US prison system and demands a reevaluation of the correctional system. While convicted offenders deserve to be punished for their crimes, do prisoners lose their basic human rights upon incarceration?

It also forces a look at the treatment of the mentally ill and how this most vulnerable sector of society is locked away, overlooked and subjected to ongoing and systematic torture, all while the facility perpetrating the torture makes a profit and government (through taxes) continues to pay for it.  


Follow Laura Sesana on Twitter at @lasesana and get regular column posts and updates on Facebook and Google+  

READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana



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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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