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January 20, 2021

Mississippi prison coronavirus protocols under scrutiny in lawsuit

Attorneys are feuding in federal court filings over coronavirus testing and safety protocols at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

Entertainment mogul Jay-Z and rapper Yo Gotti are funding a lawsuit filed early this year to challenge health and safety conditions in Parchman. Separately, the U.S. Justice Department said in February that it’s investigating Mississippi’s prison system — an announcement that came weeks after violence in late December and early January left some inmates dead and more injured.

Madeleine LaMarre, a nurse and prison health care consultant who is helping plaintiffs in the Parchman lawsuit, said in court papers Aug. 11 that she and a physician inspected the prison in February to determine whether inmates “were harmed by lack of timely access to medical care and the conditions of confinement.”

“I found, among other serious problems with access to care, that the conditions of confinement were the worst I had ever witnessed, including lack of adequate sanitation and disinfection that would promote the transmission of COVID-19 to inmates and staff,” LaMarre wrote.

Mississippi’s first known coronavirus cases, outside prison walls, were detected in mid-March. A Parchman employee tested positive March 26 and exposed kitchen workers to the virus, LaMarre wrote. An inmate in the prison’s hospital tested positive for the virus April 8, his condition worsened April 10 and he died April 11, she wrote.

On April 15, the state Department of Corrections and the private company providing prisons’ health services announced plans to try to slow the spread of COVID-19. Those included stricter sanitation measures and requiring inmates whose beds are near each other to sleep head-to-feet rather than face-to-face.

LaMarre wrote in the Aug. 11 filing that the measures were not consistently followed. She wrote that a man housed in one unit at Parchman said a nurse checked inmates’ temperatures twice a day but did not screen them for symptoms.

“Several inmates’ bunks were within 6 feet of his bunk and MDOC staff made no attempt to provide more physical space between bunks or to have inmates sleep head to foot, as planned,” LaMarre wrote. “Staff does not enforce social distancing of inmates. Inmates eat their meals together in the housing unit without social distancing.”

The state filed a response Aug. 17, which included a statement from Dr. James Glisson, the medical director at Parchman. Glisson wrote that Unit 31 at Parchman is reserved for inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19.

“There is a doctor present in Unit 31 at least three days a week,” Glisson wrote. “He makes regular rounds within the unit and speaks with each patient who has tested positive for COVID-19. He addresses the immediate needs of patients and confers with me regarding their treatment as well as needs for re-testing and movement of COVID-19 positive inmates.”

Glisson also wrote that a nurse works in Unit 31 about 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

In response to questions from The Associated Press on Friday, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Grace Simmons Fisher said COVID-19 testing in the state’s prisons is based on symptoms and as a result of contact tracing.

“Inmates who have possibly been exposed to other inmates with COVID-19 symptoms in the same housing unit are being tested as a precaution, especially if they have underlying conditions that may put them at a higher risk of complications from the virus,” Fisher said.

The Department of Corrections said that as of Friday, 510 Mississippi inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, and 112 of those cases were still active. Fisher told the AP that she was unable to say how many of the inactive cases were from inmates who had died.

Glisson works for Centurion, a private company that provides medical services at Parchman. In a July 7 letter to the Department of Corrections, Centurion CEO Steven H. Wheeler gave 90 days’ notice the company will end its state contract as of Oct. 5.

Wheeler wrote that Centurion had improved medical services at Parchman, but “we do not believe we can further improve the effectiveness of our level of care without additional investment from the Department in correctional staffing and infrastructure.”

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994.

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