JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The state of Mississippi has "abandoned its responsibility to provide basic needs" to inmates at a privately run prison that is excessively violent and fails to provide proper medical care, an attorney for the prisoners said Monday.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Poverty Law Center sued the state over conditions at East Mississippi Correctional Facility, which is home to 1,200 inmates, the majority of whom have been diagnosed with a mental health problem.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections "receives report after report and does nothing. That is the definition of deliberate indifference," plaintiffs' attorney Erin Monju said in closing arguments.
Warden Frank Shaw testified during the five-week trial that the prison follows protocol and the facility is no worse than any other. Attorneys for the government defended the facility, including its use of solitary confinement.
"Coloring books and timeout isn't going to work for criminals," defense attorney William Siler said.
The prison is operated under a contract with the Utah-based Management and Training Corporation. Attorneys for the government said the groups suing Mississippi had an agenda and wanted to litigate private prisons out of business.
"We need to get out of their (MTC's) way and let them run their prison," Siler said.
Privately run prisons can be a political hot potato. Lawmakers often tout their lowered costs and better performance than state-run facilities but opponents point to understaffing, health care cuts and a lack of transparency.
One of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' first orders in the Trump administration was to reverse an Obama-era directive phasing out the use of private prisons. It was perhaps an acknowledgement that the private prisons may be needed given the administration's aggressive enforcement of drug and immigration laws.
Several inmates testified during the trial about the conditions inside the prison. They described being jumped or shanked, sometimes in their own cells, with little help from prison guards. Such inmate violence, the warden said, was common.
"It's the nature of prisons," Shaw said. "It's the nature of the beast."
Siler said during closing arguments that the facility sees approximately 13 assaults per month - a number that he said, "just doesn't seem to be that big of a number to me. It doesn't seem excessive."
But the inmates' attorneys argued that the number of assaults at the prison is high and the result of inadequate supervision due to the prison's short-staffing. And they say guards abandon their posts and do not perform their minimum job functions.
"The facility claims to be an indirect supervision prison," Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Elissa Johnson said. "But because of staff's failure to remain on their posts, it virtually results in a no-supervision prison."
Inmates said they had seen cockroaches and mouse droppings throughout the facility, particularly in the kitchen, and had to deal with sewage backing up into cells and bathrooms.
The warden blamed the plumbing problems on inmates.
"In most cases when we have those issues," Shaw said, "it's inmate related. They've either flushed something down they shouldn't have or torn something up."
U.S. District Judge William Barbour Jr. said he planned to take "several days" to issue a written ruling.