While there’s “no foul play suspected” in most of the deaths, there’s plenty foul about drinking contaminated water and breathing black mold.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Kim Brown: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Kim Brown. Within the past week, five incarcerated people have died while in custody in Mississippi’s Department of Corrections. Now, that’s an astounding number in itself, but consider that 25 people have died in Mississippi state prisons since December 29th, a period of less than three months.
Now, those who are locked up, along with their advocates on the outside, have been sounding the alarm on the human rights abuses happening there.
Speaker 2: I would never drink the water at Parchman. I don’t like to wash my hands in the bathrooms, because when you turn the water on it’s literally the color of mud. The water fountains, when they work, it’s the same way. The water that comes out of the water fountains, you’re too scared to drink. The guards will tell you not to drink. I’ve had guards give me bottled water because I didn’t have any. They wouldn’t let me drink the water, but my clients drink that water all the time.
So the water varies between two ways. It’s either too chlorinated, or it smells like sewage. And so, all of the pipes leak, right? So the guys tie their socks around the leaky pipes, and so if the socks are brown, they know not to drink the water. If the socks are white, they know, “Oh, chlorine’s in the water. We can wash our clothes,” and that if you’re going to drink the water, you’re going to drink it at that time period. If there’s a boil water notice in the area, the guys don’t get bottled water. They’re still forced to drink that water. They take their medication with water that smells like sewage. They take medication in water that visibly, if you put it in a cup … and the guys will tell you that they let the water sit, and they let all of the soil and all of the particles go to the bottom. And then, they just drink the water that’s clarified on top.
Kim Brown: That was an excerpt from the documentary titled Parchman Prison: Protest & Pain, a special report compiled by activist Devyn Springer and RT News. You should check it out on YouTube. It is quite revealing. And today, we’re joined with an activist who is very familiar with the ongoing crisis in Mississippi. Mrs. Pauline Rogers is the co-founder of the RECH Foundation, a group that helps the formerly incarcerated to reenter society. She’s joining us on the line today from Jackson, Mississippi. Ms. Rogers, thank you so much for being here.
Pauline Rogers: Thank you so much for the coverage. Thank you.
Kim Brown: You’re welcome, Ms. Jackson. So, first … excuse me, Ms. Rogers, let’s start with the most obvious question. Why have so many people died in such a short span of time while locked up in Mississippi prisons?
Pauline Rogers: The reasons they have died, in my opinion, are numerous. Lack of healthcare, proper healthcare, adequate healthcare. Some violence, people under pressure, people treated like animals, they die like animals. So, you have a combination of that going on.
Kim Brown: So, a good number of these prisoners have died from non-violent ways. So, what are you hearing from those who were in jail? And the fact that people are dying, not because of violence, how does that speak to the conditions that they are facing?
Pauline Rogers: Those conditions are unresolved conditions for years. It’s been going on for years. The women’s facility here that was built over 30 something years ago, was built as a means to intercept some of the problems that was going on at Parchman decades ago. It’s just issues that haven’t been dealt with. People under pressure, it’s like a volcano, eventually, the lava keeps popping up, giving you a warning that there’s about to be an explosion. This is what’s been taking place at Parchman for decades. And finally, it came to an eruption point, by way of revealing through contraband cell phones, so it’s been going on decades.
Kim Brown: Talk to us a little bit more about that because, as you said, these conditions are not new. This has been happening for an extended period of time, but given that we’re now in the 21st century, people are smuggling in cell phones into prisons and, as a result, the prisoners themselves are documenting what’s happening to them, and pretty much advocating for better conditions for themselves. Talk to us about how-
Pauline Rogers: For themselves.
Kim Brown: The cell phones have done this.
Pauline Rogers: Well, the cell phones, you got officers, underpaid staff. All the people that are imprisoned aren’t indigent prisoners, some of them from affluent backgrounds, or have had means of making and generating money. So you have these people, some of the prisoners paying, are compensating salaries for underpaid staff that are bringing them in the contraband, in order for them to be able to expose the conditions and treatments that’s going on inside the prison. So, you’ve got them meeting salaries, making payrolls to some of these prisoners who get some of the staffers who are underpaid, and are eligible for TANF and food stamp benefit with this paid job, at a correctional facility, at a prison. So you got that going on.
And some of the staffers are getting paid more than the state is paying them, and it’s created an environment for corruption, and corruption at the highest level. We even had a commissioner who fell prey to contract, is now doing federal time. So, it’s an ongoing crisis that the prisoners have become privy to or prey to and party to, and subjected to. And all levels, the prisoners are part of it.
Kim Brown: So the ACLU won a case about 10 years ago against the Mississippi prison system. Can you talk to us about what was achieved and whether or not it led to any improvements?
Pauline Rogers: A lot of cases have been presented. The ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, and even some of the prisoners. I can remember a guy that was formerly incarcerated, that’s no longer incarcerated filed a suit about the conditions, I believe it was at the time camp 12 of Parchman about the plumbing and sewer system. It lasts for a season. Or you may put, just say you put a realm around a plumber condition and you have a work order that shows that that quiets that settles people from going further, pursuing it further because you can present a document or a receipt that reflects that you did something, but you may not have necessarily resolved the problem.
So that’s a lot of what goes on. If you can submit a receipt, the DOC, to the governor that you did something, or even to the health department, then it quiets the situation, the circumstance, and the public or the prisoners to say, “Yeah, we did something,” but you in essence did not resolve the issue. So it’s the systemic corruption. The health department show conditions of the prison, Parchman, years ago, but nothing was done about. And even recently, just last year, it show the conditions of Parchman. Well, the state is not going to reflect itself in a bad way, so you keep getting these perpetual problems unresolved.
Kim Brown: And, as indicated in the documentary that I referenced at the beginning of the interview, one formerly incarcerated person described how the health department has been barred in some instances for entering the prison to check on the conditions of the water and the sewage, et cetera. But Ms. Pauline I wanted to ask you, so, like I said, this documentary is really good. It was very insightful because it delved into the history of the Mississippi prison system, and the factors behind it that, basically, this was just a way to re-enslave black people into a manual labor system that was prison slave labor. So, in 2020, are there any elected officials there who are truly listening to what you and others are saying about Parchman and the other Mississippi state correction facilities? And who in terms of elected officials are taking actions on behalf of the prisoners?
Pauline Rogers: There are elected officials, Kimberly, that are listening. Prior to us being in the national news, if you go to my social media page, November 11th, 2019, I finally got the ears of one our state senators who has a radio program, had myself on radio program. I invited a Caucasian female to show both sides of the poor being incarcerated. And from November 11th until we became national news zero was done because I told them the prisoners were at a boiling point and I, in essence, gave the phone number, posted the phone number rather on social media that I knew these prisoners had access to. And they were given a time to call the radio station so that the Senator could hear firsthand through this contraband cell phone the story.
But he is powerless without the collective government supporting that. Like right now we have Governor Tate Reeves, a Republican governor and that’s important because he calls himself or refers to himself as a Trump supporter, where it has been ordered by the Department of Justice to come in and investigate Parchman. However, if you’re a Trump supporter, you’re not going to come in and make yourself look bad. So it’s like you come in and you say, “The Department of Justice is going to come in and investigate,” but then you watch on the national news where it’s seemingly the president is fighting the Department of Justice, so you can’t have it both ways.
You either coming in and you want a fair investigation, or you’re going to control the parts of the investigation. So, you can’t say you’re closing down Parchman, but you send out two or three people, and you keep certain people their housed, and you make the public think that we’re really progressing. And then, you sending these people into private prisons, which is another problem. For private prison, that’s the part that we’ve been working out to close the private prison because the same thing is happening in the private prison.
Kim Brown: You know the concerns over parchment have almost become a cause celebre, with rappers Jay-Z and Yo Gotti filing a lawsuit on behalf of some of the prisoners. How has the added attention impacted the work that you have been doing Ms. Rogers?
Pauline Rogers: The added national attention is great, however, the missing piece is because we’re not of the caliber of the Jay-Zs and the Yo Gottis you’ve missed the full impact of the stories and what’s really going on, and how deep rooted it has been going on because you have opportunists who are grabbing hold, who have the excess, the means, the resources to further add legs or extensions to who they are or who they desire to be that the real stories may get untold. We have memos going back to the 1980s. In one of our transitional halls, we keep on an easel 24/7 the gas chamber that was at Parchman, camp 29.
And then, you have the people who are just getting buried because for years Parchman was doomed. William Faulkner labeled and tagged Parchman as destination doom is what Parchman was called, destination doom. Destination doom meant you were to never leave Parchman once you enter. And the Freedom Riders, when they came through years ago, got a taste of that by, the then governor, Ross Burnett, who the reservoir in the state of Mississippi is named after this governor, was to put heavy oppression on these Freedom Riders to give them a taste of Parchman, and to quiet them, that they never wanted to come through Mississippi again. And Parchman became the, as Wendy Hatcher, who was the first female chaplain that was hired by Parchman, that Parchman became the for-profit model place of for-profit prisons.
And you had the trusty shooters, who in the segregation and gangs were actually created by the system, not by the prisoners who went in to be gangs, but the system created this. They had segregated parts of the prison. The white prisoners went here. The black was with there. Didn’t matter what the crime was, or if the blacks were innocently put in prison because you were black, there was the reason, that you were black, and we didn’t want you free, and you got incarcerated for that. So you were segregated, then you have the trust white trusty shooters who were ordered to shoot black prisoners. Later, black prisoners were armed to be trusty shooters but they had to shoot other blacks, or ended up losing their own lives. So the gang creation was started and created by the system.
Kim Brown: Ms. Pauline, we’re running a little short on time, but I wanted you to have the opportunity to tell our audience the work you and your husband, Fredrick, have been doing with the RECH Foundation and some of the stories, if there’s a story or two that you could share with us, about a person that you’ve worked with as they came out of jail and some of the trauma that they experienced but, at the same time, the amount of resources they need to overcome in order to not reenter that system. Can you talk to us about that?
Pauline Rogers: Well, yes. 30 some years ago, Kimberly they didn’t have anything, so we were all over the place. Advocacy activists, housing, transportation. Helping with supervision fees, making parole, probation appointment, so we had to be everything. But one of the stories for a woman, the first woman that we transitioned was in 1989 simply because I had an extra role, and she needed somewhere. Well, she was released from prison because she had health issues, and those health issues progressed. We ended up trying to find her and did get her a nursing home that would accept her. I don’t know how they were able to keep her at that nursing home and she still needed us because she didn’t have family members, or so that’s what she told us. Well mind you, we were new in the game so we kept being a part of her support system.
Fast forward and she ended up having to get moved to another nurse. How fast forward, another nursing home that was closer to us. She ended up dying, and they called us and we were very active in her life, and ended up having to bury her. And when they released her records to us, she actually had me listed as a sibling. To this day, before Facebook was popular, it was Myspace posted her own social media, nobody ever came for. We ended up baring her. We still have or in a mahogany urn that we have sitting, nobody ever to this day came forward. That’s one issue, but the barriers to employment, housing … So, we provide housing. My husband, who did 16 years in prison, most of that in Parchman still works with … and one of our biggest volunteers is a guy who’s older than him that kept this youth juvenile on track that works with him every day.
So we do transitional housing, we do life skills training, workforce development, social training, mannerism, behavior. We teach them how to operate within boundaries because boundaries is a issue. So we just all over the place in our services. But when they leave us with housing, we are able to give them something to start with when they leave here, whether that’s a refrigerator, a table, household items. We’re just doing a little bit of everything. July 1 last year, we were a part of getting house bill 1352 passed, which gives people that are convicted with drug felonies eligibility to apply for TANF and food stamps, and they’ve not had that. And you would think that would be something on the list, but that just went into effect in Mississippi July 1, 2019.
Kim Brown: That’s incredible. And to our audience, if you’ve ever seen the show on cable television on the weekends, it’s called Locked Up Abroad, let me tell you something, Parchman prison looks worse than the prisons featured on Locked Up Abroad and that should tell you something. That’s happening right here in the United States in Mississippi. And today, we’ve been speaking with Mrs. Pauline Rogers, she is the co-founder of the RECH Foundation, a group that helps the formerly incarcerated to reenter society. And we’ve been talking specifically about 25 deaths in less than three months in the Mississippi Department of Corrections. These people are facing inhumane conditions. Ms. Pauline, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. We really appreciate it.
Pauline Rogers: Thank you.
Kim Brown: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.
Kim Brown has been covering national and international politics for over 10 years and has been a sought-after voice on issues on race and culture.