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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: 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.

Confirmed Cases: 91935

Reported Deaths: 2780
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds6884152
DeSoto527653
Harrison366071
Jackson332666
Madison316485
Rankin312173
Lee251566
Jones234077
Forrest229468
Washington214771
Lafayette199339
Lauderdale1977122
Bolivar175064
Oktibbeha172549
Lamar154833
Neshoba1513103
Panola140326
Lowndes138057
Sunflower136943
Warren136249
Leflore133279
Pike119848
Pontotoc119616
Monroe116665
Scott114925
Copiah114533
Coahoma108926
Holmes107658
Marshall105914
Grenada102634
Lincoln102652
Yazoo102527
Simpson99841
Union96223
Tate94337
Leake93235
Adams88133
Wayne86421
Pearl River83349
Marion82832
Covington78721
Prentiss77317
Alcorn74610
Newton74222
George74013
Itawamba72921
Tallahatchie72517
Winston71819
Tishomingo64035
Attala63325
Chickasaw63124
Tippah62016
Walthall58525
Clay55916
Hancock54420
Noxubee53915
Jasper53214
Clarke51937
Smith51514
Calhoun50612
Tunica47013
Claiborne44716
Montgomery44420
Lawrence42112
Yalobusha41014
Perry38216
Humphreys36815
Quitman3595
Stone34511
Greene33316
Webster32613
Jefferson Davis31711
Carroll30612
Amite30310
Wilkinson29917
Kemper28415
Sharkey25811
Jefferson2349
Benton2081
Franklin1833
Choctaw1775
Issaquena1023
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 128097

Reported Deaths: 2264
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson18531332
Mobile12931288
Montgomery8546170
Madison730373
Tuscaloosa6984109
Lee557059
Shelby544649
Baldwin500347
Marshall375942
Etowah324744
Calhoun316538
Morgan311825
Houston258621
Elmore246847
DeKalb229319
St. Clair217434
Walker217480
Talladega199125
Limestone190819
Cullman179717
Dallas172526
Franklin170328
Russell16852
Autauga161924
Lauderdale159031
Colbert156024
Escambia153824
Blount148713
Jackson144210
Chilton142824
Dale127442
Covington127227
Coffee12357
Pike11289
Tallapoosa112483
Chambers110742
Clarke104316
Marion90328
Butler90138
Barbour8097
Marengo69419
Winston68012
Lowndes64327
Pickens61514
Bibb6129
Hale60928
Bullock58314
Randolph58112
Lawrence57320
Monroe5708
Washington54213
Geneva5364
Perry5366
Wilcox52911
Cherokee52615
Conecuh51611
Crenshaw50731
Clay5057
Macon46619
Henry4474
Sumter41419
Fayette4088
Choctaw34212
Lamar3272
Cleburne3056
Greene29715
Coosa1573
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