Feb. 8, 2020, 4:50 AM CST
By Erik Ortiz


Keewin Grayer served 24 years in Mississippi's state prisons for drug offenses. The conditions he experienced on a daily basis were "inhumane," he said, "and well below the standards of any prison in America."


Food would contain insects, rodent feces and hair, he said. He went weeks without running water and showers as a form of group punishment, and prison staff would dangle promises of steak dinners and DVDs to inmates if they cleaned up the filth and mold before an outside agency came in to inspect.

Image: An inoperable toilet inside a cell at Parchman.An inoperable toilet inside a cell at Parchman.Mississippi State Department of Health

Grayer's stint included being locked up at Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, one of four facilities where the federal government said Wednesday it plans to investigate a deepening crisis, amplified by a string of violent deaths and lockdowns and protests outside the Mississippi Capitol to "shut it down."


Grayer was released from prison three years ago, and his time at Parchman included being housed at Unit 29 — an area so plagued by problems that Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, announced in his first State of the State address last month that he will close it.

"The federal government coming in allows these other officials to see for themselves just how heinous, corrupt and evil the Department of Corrections are down here in Mississippi," Grayer said, "because it has reached a point of no return if our cry for help down here isn't heard both far and near."

Grayer, a reformed gang member who does outreach ministry, added that "anyone who's a decent human being has to care about the life of another person. These people in prison still have a chance to get back into society and turn their lives around."


Prison reform advocates were relieved to hear the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division will review conditions in Mississippi, focusing on whether the state Department of Corrections "adequately protects prisoners from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners at the four prisons." It will also examine suicide prevention practices and use of isolation at Parchman.

Since Dec. 29, at least 15 inmates have died across Mississippi's prisons, with several resulting from gang-related riots, according to officials. At least two of the deaths were suicide-related.

Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama, tweeted Wednesday that the federal government's decision is "hugely important."

Vanita Gupta

In the face of a massive human rights crisis in Mississippi prisons, this announcement of a DOJ Civil Rts Division investigation is hugely important. https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-announces-investigation-conditions-four-mississipp...

Justice Department Announces Investigation into Conditions in Four

The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division announced today that it has opened an investigation into conditions of confinement in four of Mississippi’s prisons. The investigation will examine

But she told NBC News she remains "cautious" about any proposed actions that would reform the prisons given how the department under the Trump administration has been limited in its use of consent decrees, formal agreements between the federal government and the state that make reforms binding.

"With this administration, one has to be cautious because of the slowdown of the work of the Civil Rights Division and because of the diminishing role of civil rights enforcement," said Gupta, now the CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a civil rights coalition. "I was very heartened to see the announcement with Mississippi given the gravity of the human rights violations alleged there."


In 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rolled back certain Obama-era efforts, including how the department investigates police departments accused of a "pattern or practice of civil rights violations." Critics say the department under Trump has shifted its civil rights priorities and become less active in pursuing cases.

Prison reform advocates say it's unusual for the Justice Department to look at four prisons rather than just one and indicates how entrenched and immediate the problems remain.

A 2019 health inspection report regarding Mississippi State Penitentiary found hundreds of cells with violations, ranging from inoperable toilets and sinks to missing pillows and mattresses to no lights.


"With few exceptions, the DOJ tends to go after the worst of the worst," said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. "Mississippi prisons right now have a truly medieval level of violence and squalor and disorder. It would have been unconscionable to look the other way."

Image: An inoperable toilet inside a cell at Parchman.Poor conditions inside a cell at at Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman.Mississippi State Department of Health


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