Jay-Z brings suit against Mississippi on behalf of prison inmates

Posted on January 21st, 2020 by Global Ganja Report and tagged , , , , , , .

Jay-ZAmid a bloody prison uprising in Mississippi, hip-hop superstar Jay Z has launched suit against state authorities on behalf of inmates at the violence-plagued penitentiary. Mississippi has some of the harshest cannabis laws in the country, and pot convictions are big factor contributing to the dire crisis of overcrowding and brutality in the state's lock-ups.

Rapper and hip-hop impresario Jay-Z has brought a lawsuit against Mississippi authorities over the violence in the state's prisons that has left five dead over the past weeks.

The Brooklyn-born rap star is suing the head of the Mississippi Department of Corrections and the warden of the state penitentiary at Parchman. The litigation was brought on behalf of 29 prisoners who say the officials have done nothing to stop the violence at the facility.

"These deaths are a direct result of Mississippi's utter disregard for the people it has incarcerated and their constitutional rights," charges the suit, which was filed Jan. 14 by Jay-Z's attorney Alex Spiro at the US District Court in Greenville, Miss.  The named defendants are DoC commissioner Pelicia Hall and state penitentiary superintendent Marshall Turner. 

"We cannot treat people this way and it's time to do something about it," Spiro, of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, said in a statement to NBC News.

"Plaintiffs' lives are in peril," the suit charges, according to the Jackson Clarion Ledger. "Individuals held in Mississippi's prisons are dying because Mississippi has failed to fund its prisons, resulting in prisons where violence reigns because prisons are understaffed."

The suit follows a letter dated Jan. 9 that Spiro sent to Hall and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant on behalf of Jay-Z (born Shawn Corey Carter) and fellow rapper Yo Gotti (Mario Mims), protesting the "inhumane conditions in prisons operated by the Mississippi Department of Corrections."

"This unthinkable spate of deaths is the culmination of years of severe understaffing and neglect at Mississippi's prisons," the letter stated. "As Mississippi has incarcerated increasing numbers of people, it has dramatically reduced its funding of prisons. As a result, prison conditions fail to meet even the most basic human rights.... People are forced to live in squalor, with rats that crawl over them as they sleep on the floor, having been denied even a mattress for a cot."

The missive signed off with this warning: "Roc Nation and its philanthropic arm, Team Roc, demand that Mississippi take immediate steps to remedy this intolerable situation." Roc Nation is the entertainment company that Jay-Z launched in 2008.

Cannabis a big factor
Jay-Z's suit names three penitentiary inmates who have been killed this year.  "Walter Gates, an inmate of Unit 29E at Parchman was stabbed multiple times the night of New Year’s Eve, and pronounced dead just after midnight," the lawsuit states. "Roosevelt Holliman was stabbed to death in a fight the next day. And Denorris Howell, an inmate of Unit 291 at Parchman was stabbed multiple times and pronounced dead the day after that."

Two more killed at other facilities in the state since Dec. 29 bring a total of five: Terrandance Dobbins at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville, and Gregory Emary at Chickasaw County Regional Correctional Facility. In these facilities, as at Parchman, officials admit that "gangs are at war," and the situation is out of control.

Although none of the five were doing time on cannabis charges, Holliman was serving a sentence for a cocaine sale among other convictions. It is clear that cannabis is a major factor in the crisis of the state's prisons. Many of the inmates at Parchman are serving time for pot—including some of those whose families are speaking up for accountability in the situation.

Angela Riley Liggins, whose son Travonta Riley, a 28-year-old father of four, is serving a five-year term for cannabis possession at Parchman, spoke to local WLBT about her concerns for his safety.

Liggins said she received a panicked phone call from her son early on the morning of Jan. 3, as the facility was descending into deadly violence. "I have been trying to call back since to see or to check to make sure he's OK," said Liggins. "No one is answering the phone."

Liggins described the harsh conditions at the facility. "It's horrible. No one should be treated that way regardless of why they are there, what happened. They are not animals. They are human. They are human beings and no one should be treated as if they are the scum of the earth," she said. "I fear for my child's safety there."

Mississippi has some the harshest cannabis laws in the country. A third conviction for simple possession can land you in the slammer for up to six months. Selling up to 30 grams (about an ounce) is a felony punishable by up to three years imprisonment, as well as a $3,000 fine. At even simple possession of five kilograms, a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence kicks in.

The situation is exacerbated by Mississippi's "habitual offender" laws—the state's version of the "three strikes" law that was overturned by popular referendum in California in 2012, where nonviolent offenses are concerned. Under Mississippi law, any of the three strikes can be a cannabis conviction, with absurd sentences of up to 60 years hitting in—virtual life imprisonment. A recent investigation by the Jackson Free Press found: "Black people accounted for 77.5% of those serving habitual sentences for non-violent offenses. The bulk of those serving extreme sentences in Mississippi are behind bars for drug-related charges, including simple marijuana possession."

Eighth Amendment violations
Fortunately, some politicians have started taking note of the crisis in Mississippi's prisons. On Jan. 7, US Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat who is the longest serving of the state's delegation, joined with local clergy and advocacy groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center in calling upon the federal Department of Justice to open an immediate investigation into the conditions in Mississippi's prisons.

In a 23-page letter addressed to Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the DoJ Civil Rights Division, Thompson and his co-signatories accused the state government of abdicating its responsibility to keep prisoners safe from substantial risk of serious harm. The letter called this a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, which bars "cruel and unusual punishment."

The letter stated: "Notwithstanding sentencing reforms enacted in 2014 that resulted in a modest population reduction, Mississippi has the third highest incarceration rate of any US state, with approximately 640 people living behind bars per 100,000 residents. In the last five years, Mississippi's spending on its correctional system has fallen dramatically. Since 2014, spending on MDOC [Mississippi Department of Corrections] has declined $ 185 million. The state has functionally divested from its correctional system, with deadly consequences for the individuals who live and work within that system."

The letter concluded that "[n]othing short of investigation and, if necessary, enforcement action by the Department of Justice will compel Mississippi to cease violating the federal constitutional rights of people held in its decaying and understaffed prisons."

After a visit to Parchman on Jan. 10, a group of Mississippi state representatives issued their own urgent statement.

Read the statement from the Mississippi House Democratic Caucus: "We have a 17,000-acre facility at Parchman for 3,400 people. We have people with low-level drug crimes who should be released and getting their lives back together, but instead are locked up. Last year, we underfunded the Department of Corrections by $980,000... This is not a smart answer to this problem. First, we need the parole board to have discretion to release parole-eligible people. We have over 6,000 of 19,000 people incarcerated who are eligible for parole, but because of unnecessary sentencing, mandatory minimums, they are not being released. Finally, we would suggest that the governor use his executive power to commute the sentences of people who are eligible for parole so we can reduce the overcrowding in our prisons. These are nonviolent offenders and people who are not a threat to the public. The Legislature, the governor and our respective agencies have a lot of work to do."

Resistance behind bars

While Mississippi may be a particularly egregious case, the crisis in America's prisons is hardly confined to one state—alas. In 2018, inmates across several state held a 19-day strike in protest of oppressive conditions and no-to-low pay for prison labor, which was decried as "modern slavery." The strike was timed to end Sept. 9, marking the anniversary of the Attica State prison uprising in New York in 1971. Organizers planned the strike after seven inmates were killed during a riot at a South Carolina prison that April.

This followed a national prison strike in September 2016, when inmates across 24 states participated, over similar grievances.

And the 2016 strike was similarly sparked in part by a violent eruption earlier in the year. March of 2016 saw a bloody uprising at Holman state prison in southwest Alabama. Inmates stabbed the warden and a guard, then seized control of a dorm for several hours until a special Emergency Response Team was sent in to restore control. The warden and the guard survived their wounds. But the incident served as a warning—one that the country clearly is not heeding.

Cross-post to Cannabis Now

Photo: Wikipedia


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