Prison reform advocates are calling on the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) to conduct an investigation into Mississippi’s prison system, The Associated Press reports. Following a recent wave of widespread violence that resulted in the deaths of five incarcerated people within 10 days, organizations on Tuesday (January 7) drafted a letter accusing the state of civil rights and constitutional violations.

In the complaint to the DOJ, Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other organizations warned, “It is no exaggeration to say more lives will be lost absent immediate intervention.”

From the letter:

The Mississippi prison system is in a state of acute and undeniable crises, with five deaths in just the last 10 days, and a history of preventable deaths and injuries stretching back years…. Mississippi has acknowledged the danger presented by severe understaffing and horrific conditions, but has repeatedly failed to take appropriate action.

United States Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi’s second district appealed to the federal government on Sunday (January 5) after deaths in three prisons in the state. Prison officials say gang violence led to riots that forced them to draft state troopers and a prison guard team from Tennessee to help them “regain control,” according to The AP.

 

Benny Ivey, a formerly incarcerated person from Florence, Mississippi, spoke to The AP on Tuesday (January 7) at a rally outside the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson that called for a reduction in the prison population. He said the violence goes far beyond gang activity.

“I’m not about to kick under the rug the fact that this was gang violence, okay? It was. It’s just a fact of the matter,” Ivey said at the rally. “But also the fact of the matter is, if you ain’t treated like animals, you won’t act like an animal. You’ve got these people up in there. They are people, man. They’re our loved ones. They are our brothers, our uncles, our daddies, our grandfathers, man.”

Some point to a shortage of prison guards as a contributing factor. Per The AP:

The deaths and riots since Christmas have focused attention on a prison system that fills only about half its guard posts. Prison leaders seek an additional $67 million to raise pay, hire 800 new guards and renovate a Parchman cell block that was a focus of unrest. But lawmakers in November recommended a funding cut for the three state-operated prisons. They recommended level spending on private prisons and regional facilities.

Tuesday’s letter to the DOJ points to extended lockdowns as a potential violation of civil rights, saying that incarcerated people are left “in conditions amounting to solitary confinement without access to basic privileges including recreation, showers and visitation.”