JACKSON, Mississippi — A federal judge is allowing inmates to go forward with their lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections and a private prison operator.
U.S. District Judge William Barbour Jr. on Tuesday granted class certification to a group of inmates at East Mississippi Correctional Facility. They are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Utah-based Management & Training Corp. operates the prison near Meridian.
The prisoners allege EMCF is plagued by violence against prisoners by fellow inmates and guards, and that it's dark and filthy, especially in solitary confinement. Prisoners also say they receive scanty food and inadequate medical care and mental health care. That's even though the prison is designated to house Mississippi's mentally ill prisoners.
"The court finds there is sufficient evidence that defendants have failed to act in the face of actual or constructive knowledge that prisoners housed at EMCF were being denied humane conditions of confinement, including adequate food, shelter, medical and mental health care and safety," Barbour wrote in his ruling.
That doesn't mean the plaintiffs have won. Barbour said they must prove that prison officials' failure to act is why prisoners face unconstitutional risks of harm. He wrote that if the state shows physical conditions and health care are sufficient for a humane prison "all of plaintiffs' claims will be resolved at once."
Still, the SPLC's Jody Owens said the ruling is a "major win" for inmates.
"What it means is that the case can move forward protecting all the individuals represented in this lawsuit," Owens said.
Barbour agreed the individual inmates can represent all EMCF prisoners. The state had urged Barbour to reject expert reports filed by the plaintiffs on medical care and mental health care, saying they catalogued isolated incidents, but Barbour rejected that motion, saying the state could explore that issue at trial.
"The issue here is not about the merits, but whether the cases should proceed as one or several, and the judge has ruled that these cases should be tried as one suit," Corrections Department spokeswoman Grace Simmons Fisher said in a statement. "We look forward to trying the case as one lawsuit on its merits in court."
MTC didn't respond to a request for comment. The company has said in the past that it has made improvements at EMCF since it took over in 2011, including new paint, enhanced maintenance, decreased contraband and improved guard training.
Mississippi's Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, which MTC also operates, is currently under federal court supervision. MTC also runs the Marshall County Correctional Facility and the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.
Barbour ordered the parties to appear before United States Magistrate Judge John C. Gargiulo on Oct. 15 to discuss scheduling and other logistical issues in the case. Owens said the plaintiffs will seek to request more documents and take depositions from more people in an expanded discovery phase.
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