Violence among inmates has been well documented, but violence against guards is often overlooked
Editor’s Nore: The following article was produced in partnership with The Marshall Project, USA Today, the Clarion Ledger, Mississippi Today and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. While it does not specifically deal with the multiple instances of violence against staff at South Mississippi Correctional Institution over the past few years, we felt it worthwhile to share with our readers.
By Joseph Neff and Alysia Santo
The Marshall Project
The attack on Jennifer White came as she started a morning shift at the most dangerous unit at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, the sprawling Delta prison farm here.
Just two officers had been guarding dorms housing more than 250 men. A prisoner charged them at shift’s end, beating them bloody. White arrived in time to blast him with pepper spray. He knocked her to the floor.
White says the next few seconds have replayed thousands of times in her mind: the man on top of her, smashing her in the jaw, his eyes full of rage. The popping feeling in her knee. It took nine long minutes for help to get there, according to an incident report.
After the 2016 attack, White left Parchman and holed up in her house, away from family, friends and church. Using a wheelchair while she recovered from her knee injury, she grew so haunted by suicidal and homicidal thoughts that she checked herself into a mental hospital.
“I don’t trust anyone anymore,” she says. “Everybody is a threat to me.”
Violence against and among people incarcerated in Mississippi has become a national scandal. Since Christmas, 10 prisoners have been murdered or died by suicide, prompting the U.S. Justice Department this month to say it will investigate conditions at four of the state’s six large prisons.
But violence against guards is also a scourge of the Mississippi system, an investigation by The Marshall Project found. The group’s analysis of state records and hundreds of pages of court documents, along with interviews with more than 30 prison employees, revealed a profoundly dangerous environment for everyone behind bars.
Prisoners have attacked guards more than 340 times a year, on average, since 2016, according to our analysis; there were an average of 1,300 guards on the job each year. They were beaten, stabbed with makeshift knives, sexually assaulted, and often “dashed”—prison slang for being doused with urine, feces or hot water—according to state records and interviews. The state acknowledged that about 115 assaults each year caused serious injuries.
Inmates, officers and experts agree about the principal cause of the violence: Mississippi prisons are so short staffed that nobody there is safe.
Half of all correctional-officer jobs in Mississippi’s state-run prisons are empty. A Marshall Project survey of state corrections systems nationwide found only Alabama had a higher vacancy rate, at 58 percent. At least 12 states reported vacancies over 20 percent.
Violence has erupted in understaffed prisons in Alabama, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and New Mexico in recent years. In North Carolina, five prison workers were killed in 2017; a federal report said understaffing opened the door to mayhem.
Corrections officials across the country agree that the guards shortage is one of their biggest problems. Yet lawmakers have had little appetite for raising officers’ pay or improving conditions—especially in Mississippi, where starting pay for guards is $25,650 ($23,400 at private prisons).
Other states, especially those with corrections-officer unions, pay more—as much as $56,680 in Massachusetts. Nationwide, prison guards and jailers made an average of $49,300 in 2018, according to federal data. In Mississippi, that number was far lower: $30,840.
“You have legislators down there acting like they’re shocked that something happened at their prison,” says Bryan Stirling, the corrections director in South Carolina. “They’re just sticking their heads in the sand and hoping the problem goes away.”
Mississippi corrections officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Corrections officers have the reputation, sometimes deserved, for excessive violence and indifference to the humanity of the people they watch.
But many guards say they are trying to do their best in a low-paying, low-status job in a dangerous workplace. And they understand that sometimes people in prison attack out of desperation.
Leslie Jones, a thick-set and blunt-spoken former corrections officer, says he fought with prisoners several times a week during his three years at the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility on the border with Louisiana. It’s one of three Mississippi prisons operated by a private company, Management & Training Corp.
Jones says he couldn’t get angry with a man who knocked him out and busted his lips and eyebrows in 2017. Gangs had threatened the attacker, who, fearing for his life, wanted out of his unit.
Jones saves his anger for MTC, which he says runs a prison that puts everyone in danger. He says that at its worst, Wilkinson had only seven guards when it should have had 28 on a shift.
“Your life ain’t worth two ramen noodle packs,” Jones says. He left Wilkinson in 2018.
A spokesman for Utah-based MTC did not respond to Jones’s allegations or to questions about attacks at the prison.
But in a statement, Issa Arnita says the company is working to improve safety at its facilities: “Our brave correctional professionals work in an environment that has inherent risk, and we do everything we can to minimize those risks.”
A functional prison needs guards to walk the floor, supervise people in the units, break up fights, and help when a fellow officer is in danger. Without enough staff, incarcerated men and women can’t take showers, visit with their families, get medical care, or exercise, among other things.
In the vacuum left by staff shortages, gangs have taken control of several Mississippi prisons. Some officers work with gangs, providing contraband and preferential treatment, which contributes to the violence, according to staff interviews and court filings.
Turnover is high, and the total number of guards at the state’s large prisons has fallen by a third since 2016, from 1,616 to 1,060 in 2019. As the staff shrank, the number of attacks also fell. Over the same period, the prison population grew by 4 percent to more than 13,000.
When there isn’t enough staff, prison managers often resort to “lockdowns,” keeping people in cells or dorms almost 24 hours a day, sometimes for months at a time. The constant caging creates a pressure cooker that leads to violence.
Adding to the problem: The electronic door locking systems at Parchman and Wilkinson failed in the mid-2010s, several staffers say, allowing prisoners to open their cell doors and go on the attack.
That’s what happened to Colton Smith. He had seen his father make a successful living as a prison officer, and he planned to follow in his footsteps. He recalls telling the warden, “I’m gunning for your job,” on his first day of work.
A few months in, Smith dozed off during an overnight shift in the long-term solitary unit. A prisoner popped open one of the malfunctioning cell locks, blasted Smith with the officer’s own pepper spray and stabbed him twice with a prison-made knife, he says.
In another attack, a prisoner doused him with boiling water. A third slipped out of his handcuffs and used them like brass knuckles to beat Smith unconscious. After a fourth prisoner sliced him ten times with a shank, Smith says he went on medication for anxiety and depression.
Stress like Smith’s is endemic among guards. Research papers and government studies have found that correctional officers suffer high rates of PTSD, depression, divorce and alcoholism.
Smith quit in 2018, even though he had worked his way up to sergeant, a job that paid $13 an hour. He now works for $8 an hour as a hospital housekeeper and attends nursing school. MTC did not respond to questions about Smith’s attacks.
When it comes to dashing, the violence is designed to humiliate more than hurt.
Bryan Gaston is 6-foot-9 and 300 pounds, a Navy veteran with 16 years of correctional experience in Oklahoma and Colorado. He says that before coming to Wilkinson prison in 2017, he had had only one prisoner throw liquid at him.
At Wilkinson? “Countless,” he says.
“The nastiest feeling you could ever feel in your entire life is to have another person’s human waste dripping off of you,” he says. His doctor ordered twice yearly tests for hepatitis and HIV. He now works at a prison in another state.
Of 33 Mississippi prison employees The Marshall Project interviewed, all but seven say they had been dashed.
In this environment, even guards who say they want to do their job well and care for the people inside ended up disillusioned at best, depressed and suicidal at worst.
That’s what happened to White, the former Parchman lieutenant, who sought out mental health care. She says she has forgiven her attacker and prays daily that God will also soften the heart of the man she once wanted to murder. But she also feels a profound sense of loss.
“He took away my life,” she says. “He took it all.”
The Marshall Project is a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system; sign up for their newsletters, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.