Gangs, guards and contraband inside state prisons

Besides, horrible living conditions, one former state inmate talks about other problems in the Mississippi prison system.

Posted: Mar 11, 2020 10:47 PM
Updated: Mar 12, 2020 10:03 AM

TUPELO, Miss. (WTVA) - It keeps ticking up; the death toll inside Mississippi prisons is now up to 26.

Last week, we met Steven Austin, a former state inmate working to put his life back together after serving time in for three felony DUIs.\

Previous ArticlePressure on Prisons: Life in lockup

We talked about the horrible living conditions inside the state prisons.

But conditions aside, this former inmate believes there are bigger problems plaguing the state penitentiary at Parchman and the other state prisons.

"I want to say the gangs don't run the place, but they do,” Austin said.

In the last few months, the growing tension between rival gangs the Vice Lords and the Gangster Disciples has led to fires, fights and fatalities inside Mississippi's prisons.

“So, I think there are people for whom gangs are a necessity to survive in a difficult situation," civil rights attorney Cliff Johnson said. "I think there are people who were not in gangs when they went in and are not in gangs when they get out, but they use it as a means of protection."

“In Leakesville, you had to sleep with your tennis shoes on because there was something going on down there every night,” Austin said.

And one of those nights, Austin said he saw the worst in mankind.

"It was a Friday or Saturday night. You could feel the tension with the inmates,” Austin said.

Austin said he watched a man die at the hands of gang members. He even testified in federal court. And he said it wasn’t the first time he witnessed a death.

"Two people actually die while I was down there," he said. "One was stomped to death because he was trying to steal from somebody else. The other one was gang-related."

He adds that affiliated gang members are the ones with cellphones.

"I've been shocked by those videos and they still trouble me. I’ve been in those facilities quite a bit, but it’s real. It’s real,” Johnson said.

Recently, pictures and video, allegedly from inmates inside the prison, surfaced online. Austin said contraband like cellphones is easy to get your hands on.

"You can have one of your family meet with one of the guards, or your family can send one of the guards a Green Dot card, $200, $300 and they will send a cell phone in there, and there you have it,” Austin said.

In 2018, MDOC’s zero-tolerance initiative designed to reduce contraband resulted in the seizure of 11,863 cellphones from more than 30 facilities in the state.

Johnson at the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi said that’s a result of paying the guards pennies; $24,500 a year.

"And the consequence of that is that many of our guards, as a result of financial pressure and pressure within the facility, have given in to the pressure to participate in the trafficking of contraband in the prisons,” Johnson said.

“You can get more drugs down there than you can on the street," Austin said. "It's so drug-infested, and they talk about rehab. I just get upset just thinking about it. I really do."

And from time-to-time, Austin said he still gets upset.

He said he talks to a therapist to help him cope with what he’s seen and what he's been through.

Now he is working to get his life back together because he says the consequences could be fatal.

"I've tried and still trying to straighten up my life since I've been out," he said. "I hope and pray that I never have to go back. I really do because I don t think I’d ever make it back down there again."

In response to the crisis at Parchman, Gov. Tate Reeves announced on Jan. 27 that the state would begin shutting down Unit 29. WTVA anchor Emily Leonard reached out to the Mississippi Department of Corrections to find out where they were in that process but got no response.

So, WTVA anchor Emily Leonard checked back in with Johnson at the MacArthur Justice Center. He said when Gov. Reeves made the announcement there were about 1,200 inmates in Unit 29.

As of March 11, that number is down to 327.

That means that three out of four inmates have been transferred to different locations over the last 44 days.

WTVA anchor Emily Leonard also reached out to MDOC for an updated number of guards currently employed by their department. She has not received a response.

We'll keep you updated on when or if we get a response.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 307332

Reported Deaths: 7095
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto20757248
Hinds19869408
Harrison17475302
Rankin13307275
Jackson13095243
Madison9886210
Lee9854169
Jones8289160
Forrest7522146
Lauderdale7185237
Lowndes6261144
Lamar610284
Lafayette6026117
Washington5279132
Bolivar4769129
Oktibbeha455297
Panola4440103
Pearl River4418139
Warren4277118
Marshall4267100
Pontotoc416472
Monroe4056132
Union403575
Neshoba3984176
Lincoln3869107
Hancock371985
Leflore3468124
Sunflower329389
Tate322681
Pike3177104
Scott310472
Yazoo304268
Alcorn297664
Itawamba296776
Copiah292965
Coahoma289677
Simpson287484
Tippah284668
Prentiss275659
Marion265679
Wayne261341
Leake260973
Grenada254882
Covington254380
Adams245882
Newton244859
George237647
Winston225981
Tishomingo222067
Jasper219748
Attala213273
Chickasaw204857
Holmes186471
Clay182354
Stone179131
Clarke176676
Tallahatchie175240
Calhoun163130
Yalobusha158636
Smith158534
Walthall130543
Greene129433
Lawrence126223
Noxubee125833
Montgomery125542
Perry125138
Carroll120826
Amite119941
Webster113432
Jefferson Davis105332
Tunica102525
Claiborne101330
Benton97225
Kemper95126
Humphreys94332
Franklin81723
Quitman78916
Choctaw72817
Jefferson64828
Wilkinson64727
Sharkey49617
Issaquena1686
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 518588

Reported Deaths: 10712
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson753351487
Mobile37698798
Madison33829494
Tuscaloosa25245443
Montgomery23942565
Shelby23094238
Baldwin20617300
Lee15510165
Calhoun14277311
Morgan14137268
Etowah13660345
Marshall11952219
Houston10379278
Elmore9988200
Limestone9806147
Cullman9467188
St. Clair9422234
Lauderdale9208227
DeKalb8745181
Talladega8042171
Walker7087275
Jackson6753110
Autauga6715103
Blount6480135
Colbert6200130
Coffee5397112
Dale4766110
Russell428238
Franklin419882
Chilton4080109
Covington4053114
Tallapoosa3892146
Escambia387574
Dallas3526149
Chambers3499122
Clarke346360
Marion3065100
Pike305475
Lawrence295295
Winston272272
Bibb256258
Marengo248561
Geneva245875
Pickens232959
Barbour224755
Hale218675
Butler212266
Fayette208960
Henry187844
Cherokee182044
Randolph176741
Monroe171240
Washington163838
Macon154348
Clay149354
Crenshaw149257
Cleburne146041
Lamar139234
Lowndes136453
Wilcox124327
Bullock121340
Conecuh109028
Perry107926
Sumter102932
Coosa99228
Greene90734
Choctaw58624
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