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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: Jun 28, 2021 3:27 PM

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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: 473413

Reported Deaths: 9214
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison32339474
Hinds30703575
DeSoto29814346
Jackson23263336
Rankin21111358
Lee14600217
Madison14043265
Jones13165218
Forrest12953233
Lauderdale11418297
Lowndes10249175
Lamar10048128
Pearl River8737209
Lafayette8078136
Hancock7324111
Washington6837147
Oktibbeha6820118
Neshoba6404201
Monroe6372158
Warren6326161
Pontotoc610393
Panola6071124
Bolivar6016143
Marshall5972118
Union564086
Pike5491133
Lincoln5232130
Alcorn520888
George457868
Scott451993
Leflore4401140
Prentiss437276
Itawamba436198
Tippah436180
Simpson4268111
Copiah425586
Wayne424863
Tate4234100
Adams4219114
Yazoo415886
Sunflower4088104
Covington407391
Marion4032100
Leake393185
Coahoma388198
Newton364474
Grenada3517101
Stone345657
Tishomingo324888
Attala321185
Jasper310262
Winston300391
Clay288273
Chickasaw282164
Clarke277487
Calhoun259739
Holmes259485
Smith243947
Yalobusha216747
Tallahatchie215649
Walthall205557
Greene204045
Lawrence203831
Perry196453
Amite193751
Webster191941
Noxubee174538
Montgomery169853
Jefferson Davis165541
Carroll159937
Tunica148434
Benton139433
Kemper137439
Claiborne125634
Choctaw124925
Humphreys123337
Franklin115227
Quitman101825
Wilkinson99835
Jefferson86632
Sharkey62120
Issaquena1916
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 768301

Reported Deaths: 13209
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1093481727
Mobile699891179
Madison48418589
Baldwin35707452
Shelby35193291
Tuscaloosa33029512
Montgomery32582664
Lee21908204
Calhoun20140377
Morgan19351318
Etowah18583433
Marshall17272259
Houston16139353
St. Clair14956276
Limestone14129180
Cullman14069235
Elmore14010245
Lauderdale13128272
Talladega12399215
DeKalb11890229
Walker10231312
Autauga9493127
Blount9418149
Jackson9115136
Coffee8646161
Colbert8324169
Dale8284159
Escambia6456106
Tallapoosa6394168
Covington6313157
Chilton6243133
Russell591654
Franklin563597
Chambers5240132
Marion4628115
Dallas4626178
Clarke451471
Pike450091
Geneva4252106
Winston407987
Lawrence4046102
Bibb396177
Barbour338968
Marengo320981
Monroe311547
Butler309783
Pickens298769
Randolph294055
Henry293856
Hale286081
Cherokee279850
Fayette272271
Washington243545
Crenshaw232265
Clay221561
Macon214454
Cleburne209748
Lamar187839
Conecuh177139
Lowndes169056
Coosa163631
Wilcox154335
Bullock147142
Perry134235
Sumter123335
Greene119241
Choctaw72325
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