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Jay Z and Yo Gotti Are Helping 29 Mississippi Inmates Sue Prison Officials

A new complaint alleges underfunding and understaffing have resulted in "prisons where violence reigns."

by Emma Ockerman
Jan 15 2020, 7:06pm

After a spate of violence across Mississippi’s prisons in the past few weeks, rappers Jay-Z and Yo Gotti are providing lawyers so that 29 incarcerated people can sue prison officials.

Yo Gotti and Team Roc, the philanthropic portion of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation empire, have provided legal representation so that inmates could file the complaint, according to CNN. The attorney for Roc Nation, Alex Spiro, represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Wednesday in a federal Mississippi court. Both Jay Z and Yo Gotti are outspoken advocates of criminal justice reform.

“Individuals held in Mississippi’s prisons are dying because Mississippi has failed to fund its prisons, resulting in prisons where violence reigns because prisons are understaffed,” the lawsuit alleges. The lawsuit portrays the prisons as overcrowded, rife with violence, and marred by mold, flooding, and unsafe drinking water.

Indeed, five inmates have died across three Mississippi detention facilities in the past two weeks, and the statewide system — which includes three state prisons, 15 regional facilities, and three private prisons — was placed on lockdown amid alleged gang-related violence.

“Walter Gates, an inmate of Unit 29E at Parchman, was stabbed multiple times the night of New Year’s Eve and pronounced dead just after midnight,” attorneys write in the lawsuit. “Roosevelt Holliman was stabbed to death in a fight the next day. And Denorris Howell, an inmate of Unit 291 at Parchman was stabbed multiple times and pronounced dead the day after that.”

Civil rights advocates say the violence is the result of too few prison guards, and too little investment into the state’s prison system. In wake of the deaths, Jay-Z and Yo Gotti both threatened to sue, according to the Clarion Ledger, and wrote a letter to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall to say they’d been in touch with affected inmates and wanted to see conditions immediately rectified.

Hall, who weeks ago announced plans to vacate her position in mid-January for an undisclosed role in the private sector, is named in Tuesday’s lawsuit. The lawsuit also names Marshal Turner, the superintendent of the prison where all the inmates involved in the lawsuit are locked up — the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, which is built on the site of a former plantation. The facility is capable of holding 3,560 inmates.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a VICE News request for comment about the lawsuits, which cites the Eighth Amendment as grounds for legal action. The Eighth Amendment bans cruel and unusual punishment.

"In Parchman, the units are subject to flooding. Black mold festers. Rats and mice infest the prison. Units lack running water and electricity for days at a time," attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also zeroes in on staffing issues across the state’s prison systems, stoked by a chronic lack of funding. The system has trouble hiring new officers because correctional officers in Mississippi are among the lowest-paid in their profession, with a mean hourly wage of $14.83.

Cover: Jay-Z makes an announcement of the launch of Dream Chasers record label in joint venture with Roc Nation, at the Roc Nation headquarters on Tuesday, July 23, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Greg Allen/Invision/AP)

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MISSISSIPPI
Jay Z
Yo Gotti
prison violence
violence in prison