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Views starkly differ on Mississippi’s prison state

A federal judge sat through a monthlong trial last year over conditions at a privately run Mississippi prison, but that wasn’t enough for him to make a decision on whether conditions are unconstitutional.

Now Senior U.S. District Judge William Barbour has dueling 80-page briefs to consider as he tries to decide whether East Mississippi Correctional Facility is excessively harsh, as a class action suit by prisoners alleges.

The briefs present starkly different views of conditions at the 1,200-bed prison near Meridian, as well as sharp disagreement over what each side has proved and what the legal standards should be for Barbour to make a decision.

The case, filed in 2013, had been seen as a key clash over the use of private prisons nationwide , with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center pouring resources into representing prisoners. It twice made the front page of The New York Times with its claims of Dickensian conditions including fires, long stretches in dim solitary cells and untreated medical conditions in a place where a majority of prisoners have been diagnosed with mental illness.

Barbour ordered the new briefs after touring the prison late in the trial and concluding some conditions have improved. He asked both sides to discuss what conditions are like now, as opposed to when the suit was filed.

The plaintiffs still allege that East Mississippi violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment in seven different categories. That includes poor health care and mental health care, an over-reliance on solitary confinement and use of force by guards, and a failure to keep prisoners adequately housed and fed and safe from assaults.

For example, when it comes to health care, the plaintiffs say each of six prisoners who died in 2018 had “rampant” missed medications, and the failures may have caused two of the deaths, disputing the state’s claims of improvements in making sure prisoners take their medicines.

The state, though, claims the plaintiffs have an outdated view of the prison, at times sliding toward what seems to be a tacit admission that conditions used to be unconstitutional but aren’t any more.

“Plaintiffs still refuse to acknowledge any improvements to the management and operations of East Mississippi Correctional Facility,” Assistant Attorney General Krissy Nobile wrote for the state. “Although plaintiffs refuse to concede any of the claims that they pled six years ago, the court does not need their concessions to see that the dire tale told by plaintiffs simply does not match the reality of life at EMCF.”

But the plaintiffs say they don’t legally have to prove the conditions still exist, instead arguing officials must prove that “not only that they have actually voluntarily ceased the unconstitutional conduct, but also that it ‘could not reasonably be expected to recur.’” They also say the state’s claims of improvement are not adequately backed up by evidence.

In some cases, the state says it doesn’t have to prove that things are good, only that it’s trying to do its job and thus not legally indifferent. In other places, the state argues that the legal standard for finding mistreatment is high and that plaintiffs ignore “the level of discretion correctional officials must be afforded” when they do things like shoot bursts of pepper spray through food tray slots that inmates refuse to close, seeking to force compliance.

It’s easy to feel the dispute slipping into obscurity as the wait for judgment continues. Prisoners remain, though. Lead plaintiff Jermaine Dockery is still behind bars at East Mississippi, and is scheduled to be in state custody until 2026 on an armed robbery conviction.

Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.