The attack on Jennifer White came as she started a morning shift at the most dangerous unit at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, the sprawling Delta prison farm here.
Just two officers had been guarding dorms housing more than 250 men. A prisoner charged them at shift’s end, beating them badly. White arrived in time to blast him with pepper spray. He knocked her to the floor.
White, now 50, says the next few seconds have replayed thousands of times in her mind: the man on top of her, smashing her in the jaw, his eyes full of rage. The popping feeling in her knee. It took nine long minutes for help to get there, according to an incident report.
After the 2016 attack, White left Parchman and holed up in her house, away from family, friends and church. Using a wheelchair while she recovered from her knee injury, she grew so haunted by suicidal and homicidal thoughts that she checked herself into a mental hospital.
“I don’t trust anyone anymore,” she says. “Everybody is a threat to me.”
Violence against and among people incarcerated in Mississippi has become a national scandal. Since Christmas, at least 10 prisoners have been murdered or died by suicide, prompting the U.S. Department of Justice this month to say it will investigate conditions at four of the state’s six large prisons.
But violence against guards is also a scourge of the Mississippi system, an investigation by The Marshall Project found. Our analysis of state records and hundreds of pages of court documents, along with interviews with more than 30 prison employees, revealed a profoundly dangerous environment for everyone behind bars.
Prisoners have attacked guards more than 340 times a year, on average, since 2016, according to our analysis; there were an average of 1,300 guards on the job each year. They were beaten, stabbed with makeshift knives, sexually assaulted and often “dashed”—prison slang for being doused with urine, feces or hot water—according to state records and interviews. The state acknowledged that about 115 of these assaults each year caused serious injuries.
Inmates, officers and experts agree about the principal cause of the violence: Mississippi prisons are so short staffed that nobody there is safe.
As more staff leave, the threat to the remaining officers grows, making it harder to hire and keep workers. Guards say many colleagues don’t show up for work every day, so it’s common for a single officer to try to control 200 people in cells or dorms.
Half of all correctional-officer jobs in Mississippi’s state-run prisons are empty. A Marshall Project survey of state corrections systems nationwide found only Alabama had a higher vacancy rate, at 58 percent. At least 12 states reported vacancies over 20 percent.
Violence has erupted in understaffed prisons in Alabama, Oklahoma, South Carolina and New Mexico in recent years. In North Carolina, five prison workers were killed in 2017; a federal report said understaffing—one in four positions were unfilled—opened the door to mayhem.
Corrections officials across the country agree that the lack of guards is one of their biggest problems. Yet lawmakers in many states have had little appetite for confining fewer people or raising officers’ salaries—especially in Mississippi, where starting pay for guards is $25,650. Officers at privately run prisons in the state start at $23,400.
Other states, especially those with corrections-officer unions, pay more—as much as $58,680 in Massachusetts. Nationwide, prison guards and jailers made an average of $49,300 in 2018, according to federal data. In Mississippi, that number was far lower: $30,840.
“You have legislators down there acting like they're shocked that something happened at their prison,” says Bryan Stirling, the corrections director in South Carolina who pushed through pay raises there. “They're just sticking their heads in the sand and hoping the problem goes away.”
Mississippi corrections officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Corrections officers have the reputation, sometimes deserved, for excessive violence and indifference to the humanity of the people they watch. But many guards say they are trying to do their best in a low paying, low status job in a dangerous workplace. And they understand that sometimes people in prison attack them out of desperation.
Leslie Jones, a thick-set and blunt-spoken former corrections officer, says he fought with prisoners several times a week during his three years at the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility on the border with Louisiana. It’s one of three Mississippi prisons operated by a private company, Management & Training Corporation.
Jones says he couldn’t get angry with a man who knocked him out and busted his lips and eyebrows in 2017. Gangs had threatened the attacker, who, fearing for his life, wanted out of his unit.
“His life was in jeopardy,” Jones says. “The quickest way to get off a zone is attacking an officer.”
Jones saves his anger for MTC, which he says runs a prison that puts everyone in danger. He says that at its worst, Wilkinson had only seven guards when it should have had 28 on a shift. The physical conditions are terrible, Jones says, and inmates face few consequences for assaulting officers.
“Your life ain’t worth two ramen noodle packs, and the thing is, MTC could stop it,” Jones says. He left Wilkinson in 2018.
A spokesman for Utah-based MTC did not respond to Jones’s allegations or to questions about attacks at the prison.
But in a statement, Issa Arnita says the company is working to improve safety at its facilities: “Our brave correctional professionals work in an environment that has inherent risk, and we do everything we can to minimize those risks.”
Monthly reports to the state show guards at Wilkinson had the highest rate of assaults and injuries among the state’s large prisons in the 36 months ending in mid-2019. A lawyer for the state described the reports as internal working documents that were not “verified and/or reconciled for accuracy.”
Fewer Guards with More Prisoners in Mississippi
Between fiscal years 2016 and 2019, the largest state and private prisons in Mississippi lost more than one-third of their correctional officers. At the same time, the population in those prisons grew slightly.
A functional prison needs guards to walk the floor, supervise people in the units, break up fights and help when a fellow officer is in danger. Without enough staff, incarcerated men and women can’t take showers, visit with their families, get medical care or exercise, among other things. At Wilkinson, the men missed about 70 percent of scheduled medical visits in 2018, according to an internal audit. The audit also said video surveillance showed men locked in cells when staff reported them bathing or exercising.
Arnita says MTC has retrained staff and set new procedures to ensure inmates make their medical appointments.
In the vacuum left by staff shortages, gangs have taken control of several Mississippi prisons. Some officers work with gangs, providing contraband and preferential treatment, which contributes to the violence, according to staff interviews and court filings. A smuggled cell phone can bring in as much as a week’s pay for a guard, according to many officers we interviewed.
Prisoners can’t escape the violence, but corrections officers do—by leaving their jobs. Turnover is high, and the total number of guards at the state’s six large prisons has fallen by a third since 2016, from 1,616 to 1,060 last year. The biggest losses occurred at publicly run prisons. As the staff shrank, the number of attacks also fell. Over the same period, the population in the large prisons grew by 4 percent to more than 13,000.
As officers quit, those remaining must guard more and more people on their own. The worst problem has been at Southern Mississippi Correctional Institution, in Leakesville near the Alabama border, the site of the first killing in the recent spate of violence. It had only one officer for every 20 prisoners in 2019, up from one for every 12 in 2016, state records show.
When there isn’t enough staff, prison managers often resort to "lockdowns," keeping people in cells or dorms almost 24 hours a day, sometimes for months at a time. The constant caging creates a pressure cooker that leads to violence.
Adding to the problem: the electronic door locking systems at Parchman and Wilkinson failed in the mid-2010s, several staffers say, allowing prisoners to open their cell doors and go on the attack.
That’s what happened to Colton Smith. When he first started working at Wilkinson in 2014, he was enthusiastic. The job paid $9.50 an hour, more than many others in the area, and he could work overtime. Smith had seen his father make a successful living as a prison officer, and he planned to follow in his footsteps. He recalls telling the warden, “I’m gunning for your job,” on his first day of work.
A few months in, Smith dozed off during an overnight shift in the long-term solitary unit, he says. A prisoner popped open one of the malfunctioning cell locks, blasted Smith with the officer’s own pepper spray and stabbed him twice with a prison-made knife.
The attacks kept coming, Smith says. Another prisoner doused him with boiling water. A third slipped out of his handcuffs and used them like brass knuckles to beat Smith unconscious. After a fourth prisoner sliced him 10 times with a shank, Smith says he began reliving the attacks in his dreams. He went on medication for anxiety and depression.
In interviews, Smith grew teary as he described growing sullen and irritable while neglecting his wife and son. “The anger and hate embeds itself in you,” he says. “I almost lost my family.”
Smith quit in 2018, even though he had worked his way up to sergeant, a job that paid $13 an hour. He now works for $8 an hour as a housekeeper at a hospital and attends nursing school. MTC did not respond to questions about Smith’s attacks.
Prison officials went back to using traditional locks, which caused its own set of problems. At Wilkinson, a prisoner seized keys from a female officer working solo in long-term solitary, the prison’s most dangerous unit. He unlocked three friends; they opened the cell of Jerome Harris and stabbed him in the head, chest and back, according to an MTC incident report. Harris lost his left eye and almost all vision in his right in the 2018 attack, according to a lawsuit that MTC settled.
Dashing is designed to humiliate more than hurt.
Bryan Gaston is 6 foot 9 and 300 pounds, a Navy veteran with 16 years of correctional experience in Oklahoma and Colorado. He says that before coming to Wilkinson prison in 2017, only one prisoner threw liquid at him.
At Wilkinson? “Countless,” he says.
“The nastiest feeling you could ever feel in your entire life is to have another person's human waste dripping off of you,” he says. The dashings left him with a recurring infection that’s blurred his vision in one eye. A lifelong hunter, Gaston can barely pass marksmanship tests he used to ace. He says his doctor ordered twice yearly tests for hepatitis and HIV. He now works at a prison in a nearby state.
Of 33 Mississippi prison employees The Marshall Project interviewed, all but seven say they had been dashed.
In this environment, even guards who say they want to do their job well and care for the people inside ended up disillusioned at best, depressed and suicidal at worst.
That’s what happened to White, the former Parchman lieutenant, who sought out mental health care. Today, she advocates counseling for staff and prisoners alike: “They aren’t getting that type of help to straighten their mind out.”
She says she has forgiven her attacker and prays daily that God will also soften the heart of the man she once wanted to murder. But she also feels a profound sense of loss.
“He took away my life,” she says. “He took it all.”