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15th inmate dies inside Mississippi prison

CBS News logo CBS News 2/3/2020 Audrey McNamara
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A 15th inmate has died at a Mississippi prison in just over a month, officials announced on Sunday. The death is the fifth in little more than a week, and comes amid a string of violence inside the state's prisons.

Jesus Garcia, 39, was found unresponsive inside his cell at Wilkinson County Correctional Facility on Saturday, CBS News affiliate WJTV reports. He was serving a 20-year sentence for capital rape.

According to a press release, medical personnel were called and began life-saving measures but were unsuccessful. Prison officials did not comment on the manner of death, but said they found no obvious signs of assault. His death is now under investigation. 

Since December 29, 15 inmates have died inside Mississippi prisons. Most of the deaths occurred at the troubled State Penitentiary at Parchman, the state's oldest prison. The facility covers approximately 18,000 acres of farmland, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections website. The prison has 3,560 beds, and houses only male offenders who are classified as protective custody, administrative segregation and administrative long-term segregation, or death row.  

a person sitting in front of a window: Inspectorate Issue Report On HMP Norwich © Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images Inspectorate Issue Report On HMP Norwich

Two inmates have died by hanging, but many others were killed during violent outbursts that is thought to be gang related. One day prior to Garcia's death, another Mississippi inmate attempted to hang himself, but was cut free by a state trooper, The Associated Press reports

Attorney Casey L. Austin was inside Parchman to interview inmates when the attempted hanging occurred on Friday, The Associated Press reports. 

"At approximately 2:00 p.m., I heard a Mississippi State Trooper tell the Unit 29 lobby Correctional Officer that he had just 'cut one down,'" Austin wrote. "He then explained to Correctional Officer that he had cut down an inmate who had tried to hang himself in his cell."

A majority of the violence has occurred inside Parchman's notorious Unit 29, The Associated Press reports. The unit, which consists of multiple buildings, has broken toilets and sinks, holes in cell walls, birds' nests in windows and widespread mold and mildew in showers, according to The AP. 

After an uptick in violence, many of the state's prisons were locked down. Inside Unit 29, heating and plumbing was not restored for several days after the lock down.

The spike in violence has turned a spotlight on the decrepit conditions inside the state's correctional facilities. 

Team Roc, a philanthropic group connected to Jay-Z's company, Roc Nation, along with rapper Yo Gotti, have filed a lawsuit on behalf of more than two dozen inmates. The lawsuit, filed against the commissioner of the Mississippi Corrections Department, Pelicia E. Hall, and the superintendent of the Mississippi State Penitentiary, Marshall Turner, claims people are dying because the state "has failed to fund its prisons." 

Critics say a shortage of guards has left facilities vulnerable to rampant violence and gang activity.

a red white and blue shoes sitting on top of a bed: This undated photo taken by an inmate at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and provided to The Associated Press shows inmates seen lying on the floor next to a full toilet. © Provided by CBS News This undated photo taken by an inmate at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and provided to The Associated Press shows inmates seen lying on the floor next to a full toilet.

According to the lawsuit, prisons in the state do not even provide basic necessities, such as a place to sleep. Inmates are allegedly forced to live amid flooding, overflows of raw sewage, black mold, rat infestations and lack of running water and electricity.

On January 27, the Mississippi Department of Corrections tweeted that Interim Corrections Commissioner Tommy Taylor is working with Governor Tate Reeves "to improve prison conditions for the inmates and the employees for the safety of everyone." 

"Our job is to try to make it better," Taylor said.

That same say, Reeves called for the closure of Unit 29

"I've seen enough. We have to turn the page," the governor said. "This is the first step, and I have asked the department to begin the preparations to make it happen safely, justly and quickly."

Reeves served as Mississippi lieutenant governor for the past eight years — a position where he had great influence over state budgets, including prisons. As lieutenant governor, Reeves did not support multiple requests from the state's Department of Corrections for more money to raise guard salaries, and repair Parchman's Unit 29, The AP reports

When asked about the government's role in the condition of the prisons, Gotti told CBSN last month that "it's a lack of responsibility." 

"Everybody is still human. They can't live in inhumane conditions," he said.

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