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.
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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.