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Locked Down: Inside The Prison Where Inmates Set Each Other On Fire and Gangs Have More Power Than Guards

At South Mississippi Correctional Institution, inmates have been on perpetual lockdown for seven months and gangs enforce rules. With frequent beatings, burnings and escapes, the prison has become a violent tinderbox.

By Jerry Mitchell, Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

This article was produced in partnership with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

This story is part of an ongoing investigation into Mississippi’s corrections system. Sign up for the Locked Down newsletter to receive updates in this series as soon as they publish.

LEAKESVILLE, Miss. — Jeffery Wilemon clutched his gut, throbbing in pain as he lay on his bed inside the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in April. But there was no way for him to cry out — not unless he wanted another beating.

Hours earlier, inmates had slugged the 54-year-old and declared that he needed to “follow the rules” their gang had set for prison life, he later wrote in a handwritten pleading filed in Itawamba County Circuit Court.

After the beating, gang members escorted him to a different bed, where a gang leader held court, Wilemon wrote in his pleading, which is pending. The leader warned Wilemon that he couldn’t run or hide because the gang had members everywhere. 

The leader flashed his knife, saying he could stab him. Then he said, “Get outta my face before I break your jaw,” wrote Wilemon, who is serving time on charges of possessing a firearm as a felon and possession of a controlled substance in a correctional facility. 

In an interview with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, Wilemon said he knew that the gang was vicious, and that it controlled many aspects of prison life, from where inmates slept to how often they made phone calls home. A few nights earlier, another inmate had been beaten and burned by gang members and left for dead.

President Donald Trump hailed Mississippi last year for reforms it put in place in 2014 to reduce the prison population by providing job training and rehabilitation for inmates. Indeed, the White House cited the state as a model for federal prison reform legislation Trump signed into law.

But on the ground, the reality is starkly different. The number of inmates is now growing, as the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica reported in May. Though violence and gangs have been well-known problems for years, the problems are worse than they’ve ever been, according to interviews, documents and data reviewed by the news organizations. And nowhere is that more apparent than at South Mississippi Correctional Institution.

The prison struggles to meet the fundamental duties of a correctional facility, with surging violence and, now, a lockdown barring visits entering its seventh month. Rather than counting inmates, as required, some guards are reportedly falsifying those counts, an internal prison memo says.

The state has sharply cut its spending on prisons over the last few years. Along the way, the number of guards at the three state-run prisons has plummeted, from 905 in July 2017 to 627 two years later, even as the number of inmates has remained the same. Vacancies abound, largely because the pay is so low.

South Mississippi Correctional Institution, known as SMCI, now has an inmate-to-correctional officer ratio of 23 to 1, far higher than that of other states or the federal prison system.

“This is not a sustainable situation,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. He called the inmate-to-guard ratio “among the highest I’ve ever seen.”

Just last month, 35-year-old inmate Elijah Anderson, imprisoned for meth possession, had his head slammed against concrete in his bunk and was knocked unconscious, his sister, Keneshia Lee, said. Correctional officers didn’t find the injured man for hours, she said.

“It’s a terrible situation,” she said. “It’s like he’s almost in a vegetative state. He can hear us, but he cannot speak to us, and they said he had bleeding in his brain.”

Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi, which represents incarcerated individuals, said, “We regularly have clients begging to be kept out of SMCI because of the violence. They’re scared for their lives.”

Mississippi Department of Corrections officials say they can’t discuss the incidents involving Wilemon or Anderson because they are being criminally investigated. So far, no charges have been filed. Official reports confirm that incidents involving the two men took place, though details are redacted.

SMCI is far from the only Mississippi prison hurt by staffing shortages and other woes. Two inmates escaped from Central Mississippi Correctional Facility for six days in July before they were captured about 90 miles away. About the same time, an inmate at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, who had two other escapes on his record, slipped out again before being captured a day later.

Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall acknowledged that a staffing shortage hinders her agency’s ability to run SMCI and the state’s other prisons. She said she has tried to get the Legislature to approve raises for guards and has worked to do what she can with what she has.

Fathi said the “horrific” attacks on Wilemon and another prisoner just days apart leave “no doubt that SMCI is unsafe.”

And if a prison isn’t safe for inmates, it isn’t safe for staff, he said. “This is a very dangerous situation.”

“A Ticking Time Bomb”

The pages of the Greene County Herald, a weekly newspaper here, track the evolution of SMCI from a valued partner to an unstable tempest.

When it opened in 1990, SMCI seemed like a godsend for Leakesville, a town of less than 1,000 residents halfway between Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama.

The 516-bed, minimum-security prison provided employment for a job-starved small town. The inmates picked blueberries, walked the streets and painted schools and parks.

“I remember running stories about how much the prison did for our community,” said Herald editor Russell Turner, who looks like a small-town newspaper guy with his Walmart glasses, button-down shirt and khakis.

Turner’s father, who served as editor before him, believed in the local prison and served as a board member and later as chairman of the Mississippi Prison Industries Corp.

The Herald’s May 11, 2000, issue, for instance, featured two front-page stories related to SMCI, one trumpeting the possibility of getting yet another prison in Greene County.

Back then, Turner said, many inmates were teenagers who had gotten into trouble and needed a second chance. When inmates were in the community tackling a project with a work crew, “it was common for folks to provide meals to the crew,” he said.

That mindset began to change around 2010 after corrections officials agreed to shut down a unit plagued by violence at Parchman and began sending some of the state’s worst criminals to SMCI.

In 2009, 26 inmates were charged with crimes inside the prison, two of them for assaulting correctional officers, according to Greene County Circuit Court records. 

By 2018, that number had more than doubled to 55 inmates. Nine charges involved assaulting correctional officers; an additional 16 aggravated assault.

 One inmate was charged with murder last year, three with escape.

Among the three escapes was convicted murderer Michael F. Wilson, who was imprisoned for beating two people to death.

That incident touched Turner personally. Turner had stopped by his house during the day on July 5, 2018, to find Wilson, 47, covered in sweat, wearing camouflage and sitting on the front steps. Wilson said he needed a ride to the hospital because his wife was in labor, and Turner said the story “kind of halfway fit.”

Turner gave him a ride, albeit with a gun in reach, he said. “I really just wanted the guy away from my house. I certainly did not know he was an escaped inmate.”

The hospital story was a ruse. Soon after Turner dropped Wilson off at the hospital, he said he learned from an emergency response official that the man had escaped from prison. What surprised Turner, he said, was there had been no news of the escape.

Two hours passed before the public was informed. The reason? Prison officials didn’t even know he had escaped, according to an investigative report by the attorney general’s office.

Even after SMCI officials discovered the escape, they failed to “effectively communicate with outside agencies,” including the county sheriff’s office, the attorney general’s report concluded.

Two days later, authorities captured Wilson on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. One law enforcement officer said in a separate report from the attorney general’s office that “everyone involved is ‘lucky’ nobody got hurt or killed.”

The delay upset Turner. A headline on his July 16, 2018, column in the Herald declared, “We can’t allow officials a ‘free ride’ when it comes to safety and security at SMCI.”

“A convicted murderer, serving a life sentence, strolled out of a state prison in broad daylight and was on the run for quite some time before anyone was looking for him,” he wrote. “That is the issue we need to be discussing and pushing state and local officials to address.”

 MDOC declined to comment, pointing to a statement by Hall 20 days after the escape that said, “While understaffing has not been directly attributed to the July 5 [2018] escape, it could be a contributing factor that ultimately affects public safety.”

In the wake of the escape and subsequent inmate violence, SMCI appointed a new prison superintendent.

“Changes at SMCI welcome, but much more needs to be done,” a headline on a column by Turner in the Herald read.

These days, Turner calls SMCI “a ticking time bomb.”

“The Prison Is Run by the Prisoners”

In the middle of the night on May 30, 2018, a nurse on her rounds found 57-year-old inmate Eddie Shorty bleeding in his cell, according to an incident report obtained by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

Inmates say they heard Shorty, who had been placed in a separate part of the prison under closer scrutiny to ensure his safety, begging an officer for weeks to move him because his cellmate, Jace Hicks, was abusing and extorting him.

On the night of May 29, “we listened as Eddie screamed for help as he was being beaten to death,” said one inmate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation. “We had beat on the cell doors for hours, trying to summon help … all the officer in the tower would do is yell over the P.A. speaker for us to ‘shut the hell up.’”

No help ever came, the inmate said. “Nobody counted or done a single security check that night.”

Under MDOC policy, officers are required to regularly count inmates, as often as once an hour, but a recent memo from the SMCI superintendent discussed the problem of officers failing to count: “Any Staff falsifying count will be reprimanded. This STOPS NOW!”

MDOC spokeswoman Grace Fisher declined to confirm the memo, which was posted in an inmate dayroom, or comment on it. “I do not discuss internal security matters,” she said.

After finding Shorty in his cell at 3:45 a.m., the nurse began administering CPR, according to the incident report. It was unsuccessful. Paramedics pronounced him dead a half hour-later.

According to the State Medical Examiner’s Office, Shorty died of blunt force injuries with strangulation.

Shorty’s sister, Carla, said: “We just want justice for our brother. We want the person who did it to do the time.”

Hicks, who has pleaded not guilty to a murder charge, told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting in a telephone interview that he was sleeping on a mat on the floor, trying to stay cool, when Shorty jumped on top of him and began sexually assaulting him. Hicks said authorities disposed of his blood-stained boxers, destroying what he claimed was evidence of sexual assault.

Hicks acknowledged that “nobody came for another four or five hours” after the two men had literally fought to the death.

A little over two months later, an inmate broke into the maximum security cell of Tony Howard Jr., doused him with gasoline and set him on fire.

At 5:25 p.m. on Aug. 3, an officer heard prisoners yelling that an inmate was on fire and saw “a big black cloud of smoke,” according to an incident report obtained by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

Albert Wilson, who accused Howard of previously throwing feces on him, has been indicted for inflicting second-degree burns on his fellow inmate. According to court documents, plea negotiations are “ongoing.” Wilson did not return to a letter seeking comment. 

Howard’s parents said they were unable to visit him until he was transferred to a burn unit at a Jackson hospital. After recovering, he was sent to another prison, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. Howard did not respond to a letter seeking comment.

Howard’s mother, Linda, said the lack of oversight by officers led to her son’s attack. “If I go to see my son,” she said, “I’m patted down under my arms and between my legs.” She raised a question unaddressed by the court documents: How could an inmate obtain gasoline and a lighter behind bars. “How does this happen?” 

SMCI needs to be shut down, Howard said. “The prison is run by the prisoners. The guards are just there.”

“I Didn’t Feel Like Pressing My Luck”

Wallace Carpenter, of Richton, served as a correctional officer at SMCI for a dozen years. In 2007, an attack by several inmates in the dining room gave him a black eye and sent him to the hospital for observation. 

“It was frightening,” he said. “But the response time [by fellow officers] was excellent.”

Carpenter returned to work. But in 2015, with the staff shrinking and the prison growing more violent, he said he and other veteran officers quit. “I didn’t feel like pressing my luck,” he said.

And while the number of inmates has largely remained the same, the number of officers guarding them keeps going down. In 2017, the vacancy rate for officers at SMCI was less than a third. Today, it’s nearly half.

Even inmates are aware of the problem. 

“They don’t have enough officers,” said Benjamin Hagluy, released this year from prison on a drug sale charge. He spent time in all three of Mississippi’s state-run prisons and said SMCI was the worst among them.

If the gangs start to battle, he said, “the officers just let it go, because there’s not enough of them.”

When former correctional officer Penny Helton visited SMCI on Aug. 12 to apply for a job, she said a private security firm, Advert Security Group, was running key aspects of the prison. SMCI, she said, is “understaffed big time.”

Mississippi pays the lowest salary for jail and correctional officers in the nation, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The starting salary for a correctional officer at SMCI is $12.33 an hour. 

Hall summed up the situation as desperate, saying people can’t afford to live on the starting pay for a Mississippi correctional officer.

In contrast, the salary for a kitchen manager at a nearby Hardee’s starts at $36,000 per year, more than $10,000 higher than what a new guard would earn, about $25,650.

The average salary for a correctional officer in the U.S. is $49,300 a year.

Hall asked lawmakers to increase the starting pay for officers to at least $28,000, a little less than the starting pay in Alabama.

That effort failed, with the Mississippi Legislature approving only a 3% raise. The current starting pay is still low enough for a prison guard raising a family of three to qualify for food stamps.

The officers who remain are charged with overseeing more and more inmates.

As of July 1, Parchman, the state’s most notorious prison, had one officer for every 11 inmates. The Central Mississippi Correctional Facility had one officer for every 17 inmates. At SMCI, it was 23 inmates for every officer. Two years ago, the ratio at SMCI was 17 to 1, according to data from the State Personnel Board and daily inmate counts kept by MDOC.

The average officer working in a federal prison is responsible for watching 9.3 inmates, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. In some neighboring states, the ratio is even lower: In Arkansas, it’s 6.6 inmates per guard, and in Louisiana, the ratio is 5.2 to 1. In Alabama, the ratio is 9.9 inmates per officer.

Former Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Robert L. Johnson, who oversaw the state’s prisons from 2000 to 2002, called SMCI’s officer-to-inmate ratio “unconscionable.”

Running a prison where correctional officers are so outnumbered is “not very safe at all.”

MDOC declined to comment on the high inmate-to-guard ratios at SMCI or the state’s other prisons, but noted that in a fiscal 2018 report, the ratio was lower: one guard per 11 inmates.

The lack of staff forces officers to stay on for overtime shifts, a problem highlighted nationally when accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein killed himself in a federal jail in New York City this month. Two of the officers on duty that night were working overtime shifts, media organizations have reported.

At SMCI, when an officer’s first shift ends after 12 hours, prison officials often ask him or her to work a second 12-hour shift. At the end of the second shift, some are asked to work a third. 

Informed of this practice, former Washington state prisons director Eldon Vail replied, “Oh, my, that’s dangerous.”

Without proper rest, he said, officers can fall asleep when they are watching inmates, he said.

Hall said her department is doing all it can to hire qualified officers.

Until Mississippi raises the salaries of correctional officers, this problem will persist, she said. “We’re asking them to come to work in dangerous-type environments doing dangerous work.”

“They’re Scared for Their Lives”

Kevin Schaal, a 63-year-old inmate who is serving time for sale of a controlled substance, drug possession and possession of a weapon, has spent much of his life behind bars.

He said gangs — he calls them “mobs” — run SMCI in ways big and small. It starts when a prisoner arrives and officials assign him a bunk and a bed number. But the new inmate won’t actually sleep in that bed. The gangs tell him where to sleep.

And when he arrives at the bed the gangs assign him, he will probably see a wire frame with no mattress because they have already seized it for themselves, Schaal said. “I slept on steel for about two weeks.”

The problem of gangs controlling beds at SMCI has become so common that prison Superintendent Joe Errington told officers in a recent memo to cite inmates who did this with a rules violation, which can keep them behind bars extra months or years.

And there’s more.

When a new inmate arrives at SMCI, gangs take his picture with their cellphones, which aren’t allowed in prison but are widely used, Schaal said. Even if an inmate is transferred to a different part of the prison, his photo arrives ahead of him.

Gangs charge inmates a series of fees for the most basic aspects of life. They have declared control over the beds, wall phones and showers. Inmates who want to sleep in the beds they were assigned are “breaking security” and have to pay for the privilege. There are also fines for eating food without sharing or showering at the “wrong” time. Inmates say they are forced to pay their debts with money, food, tasks (such as carrying contraband for the gangs) or Green Dots (an online currency used by inmates).

If an inmate files a grievance, that paperwork may be intercepted by gang members, who sometimes punish inmates with boiling water, electrical shock and beatings, said Ross Parker Simons, a lawyer from Pascagoula, Mississippi, who represents prisoners at SMCI.

After her brother, Elijah Anderson, was severely beaten last month, Keneshia Lee said she questioned a correctional officer, who acknowledged that officers “let inmates run the facility” because “they’re scared for their lives.”

On April 8, state Rep. Jay Hughes toured SMCI. Turner, the newspaper editor, joined him because he is a member of the citizen advisory committee to the prison. 

Hughes, a Democrat from Oxford traveling across the state in his campaign for lieutenant governor, said one counselor told him that she didn’t feel safe. Both he and Turner said a high-ranking prison official corrected her, saying: “It’s not that you didn’t feel safe. You aren’t safe.”

Both men say a top official at SMCI told them that the gangs were running the prison.

Asked about this, Fisher, the MDOC spokeswoman, replied that the department “denies alleged statements that gangs run SMCI or any other prison. Such an assertion contradicts the public safety mission of the agency.”

“It Just Tore Me Up”

The tour came just days before a correctional officer found Henry Armstead on his back between the benches in a dayroom, according to an incident report obtained by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

“I bumped him with my foot and told him to go get on his rack, at which time he held up his hands and mumbled something incoherent,” the officer wrote. “I noticed some marks on his back and side and immediately called for a stretcher to take him to medical.”

He had been “severely beaten and had severe burns on his back,” the report said.

His mother, Demetrius Armstead, said she didn’t learn that her son had been hurt until six days later, when the prison chaplain told her to head to a Hattiesburg hospital. She found her son on life support.

His swollen head reflected a severe beating, she said.

“And I could see the burns from his ear, down his entire back to the top of his buttocks.”

At first, she became angry. Then she broke down.

“Everything in the whole of my body just went to the gut of my stomach,” she said. “It just tore me up on the inside.”

After a long stint in the hospital, he has been transferred to the hospital at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, his mother said. “He’s still on his feeding tube.”

Despite the passage of time, Demetrius Armstead said she has yet to hear from prison officials regarding what happened to her son.

Asked why corrections officials have yet to give her an explanation, Fisher replied: “MDOC does not ignore family members’ concern about their loved ones. However, when a case is being investigated, as the case is here, the release of information is limited.”

Fisher said MDOC cannot comment on the cases of Wilemon, Armstead, Howard or Shorty, saying they remain open.

Demetrius Armstead called for a federal investigation into the violence against her son and others. “We need to get answers and stop whoever has power like this inside prison,” she said.

Lockdowns as a Permanent Way of Life

With declining staff and increasing violence, lockdowns have become a permanent way of life at SMCI.

In 2017, more than a dozen prisoners staged a hunger strike, sending out a written statement that they had been “locked down 24 hours a day without a possibility of an outside recreation as the United States Constitution protects. … This right hasn’t been abided by for several years.”

Although courts have held that all inmates are entitled to an hour of exercise each weekday, that rarely happens at SMCI, inmates say. 

Area II, which houses about half the inmates at SMCI, hasn’t allowed visits since January, and the rest of the prison recently followed suit. MDOC called the situation at SMCI a “partial lockdown.”

Lakeshia Payton, of Hattiesburg, said she hasn’t been able to chat face to face with her fiancé since last year. “I cry because I can’t see him,” she said.

She is part of the Mississippi Dreams Prisoner Family Support, which is holding a rally here on Aug. 31 to bring attention to the continued lockdown and the dangerous conditions inside SMCI. 

Schaal, the inmate who complained about gangs in the prison, has a son he has yet to meet, who was born a year and a half ago. “It’s time that he seen his daddy,” he said, “so he knows who his daddy is.”

Courts have generally allowed corrections officials to lock down prisons and cancel yard calls in response to threats or violence, but those same courts have drawn a line for other reasons, Fathi said.

In a lockdown case decided by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1974, judges noted that such emergencies cease to be emergencies when they continue indefinitely.” 

Hall said when there aren’t enough correctional officers, she must use lockdowns.

“We do that for the safety of the staff,” she said in April. “We do that for the safety of the residents incarcerated. And we do it for the public.”

But she acknowledged that extended lockdowns create “an unsafe environment for my staff.”

In a recent interview, Hall said continued lockdowns fuel problems for prisoners. “You’re taking away their hope.”

When the doors are finally unlocked after a long lockdown, she said, “rage is coming out that door.”

“Gangland”

Wilemon said the gang held him hostage for more than 12 hours. He eventually alerted an officer, who let him outside to walk to the prison’s medical clinic. He never made it, passing out on the grass.

He was airlifted to Forrest General Hospital, more than 50 miles away, where doctors removed his ruptured spleen and gallbladder, he said. “They also repaired my small intestines.”

An incident report confirms that he was airlifted to Forrest General, but the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting has been unable to confirm the extent of Wilemon’s injuries.

After his time in the hospital, SMCI returned Wilemon to the place he called “Gangland.”

Wilemon believes the guards are unable or unwilling to protect inmates from the gangs, noting that an officer sitting in the tower didn’t call for help even though the officer would have had an unobstructed view of his attack. 

In a desperate letter to the ACLU of Mississippi, Wilemon wrote that he still wakes up in a cold sweat, dreaming of gang members attacking and killing him. “My life was, has been and still is in danger,” he wrote. “MDOC officials made no direct effort to protect my life.”

Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to hold public officials accountable and empower citizens in their communities. Email him at Jerry.Mitchell.MCIR@gmail.com and follow him on Facebook at @JerryMitchellReporter and on Twitter at @jmitchellnews.

The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica are spending the year examining the state’s corrections system. We want to know what’s really happening behind the walls of Mississippi’s prisons. If you are a correctional officer or inmate, we particularly want to hear from you. You can share your tips and your stories by emailing us at mississippi@propublica.org or filling out this form.