JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Longstanding problems with water and sewer systems are endangering inmates' health at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, two groups said Friday.
Southern Poverty Law Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council said state agencies must take swift action to correct the problems. But, the head of the state Department of Corrections said steps are already being taken to improve water and wastewater systems at Parchman.
Vidhi Bamzai, staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a news release that the Mississippi Department of Corrections and other agencies have known about problems for years, and inmates "are forced to use water that no state official would ever sip. The state must act now to remedy this.”
The two groups issued the news release a week after they sent a letter to the Department of Corrections, the Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Quality.
“Parchman's drinking water is discolored, has a strong odor, and tastes of sewage or disinfectant," the letter said. "Sewage pipes frequently back up into living spaces and the facilities, including plumbing and sanitation systems, are in severe disrepair.”
Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain said in a statement Friday that he has received public health laboratory reports on drinking water at Parchman. He said the most recent reports — for May, June and July — showed Parchman's water is “absent” of bacteria.
Cain also said the Department of Corrections has finished the first of two phases of a project to improve water and wastewater systems by replacing and repairing lift stations and pumps. He said heavy rainfall has slowed private contractors from finishing the project, but it is about 55% complete. State lawmakers approved nearly $3.7 million for the project.
“The bottom line is current tests meet safe drinking water standards and there are ongoing improvements to the wastewater treatment system," Cain said.
Bamzai said Southern Poverty Law Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council have been looking into conditions at Parchman since about 2017, and there was no specific event that prompted the timing of the recent letter or the news release.
The water problems have been documented for years. After deadly riots broke out at Parchman in late 2019 and early 2020, the fiance of an inmate shared photos and videos with The Associated Press that showed water running down some hallways and inmates saying they had no running water in sinks and showers. They also said toilets were not flushing and mildew could be seen in living areas.
Lawsuits filed against the state Department of Corrections in early 2020 cited shoddy living conditions at Parchman, including water problems. The lawsuits were funded by entertainment mogul Jay-Z, rapper Yo Gotti and Team Roc, the philanthropic arm of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation.
Cain became Mississippi corrections commissioner in early 2020, after the riots. Cain is a former warden at Louisiana's Angola prison, and he told Mississippi lawmakers during his confirmation hearing in June 2020: “We’re going to fix Parchman.”
____ Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.