This past Wednesday, Omar Beard died in a Mississippi prison of “natural causes.” He was only 36-years-old. Beard is the nineteenth death to occur in a Mississippi prison in the last two months. People in Mississippi prisons have died from homicide, suicide and what the State describes as “natural deaths.” They have died from neglect, inadequate or nonexistent health care, and from violence. All nineteen people who recently died were locked behind bars, entirely dependent on the State of Mississippi to care for and protect them. In each case, the state failed miserably.
And that failure should matter to each of us.
Once a person is arrested for a crime and taken into custody, once they are convicted and are sent to prison in the name of “justice,” they become wards of the state. People in prison are utterly reliant on the officials running correctional facilities to provide food and shelter, to protect their safety, and to ensure their health and well-being. When the state assumes the role of jailer, the state also assumes a duty of care.
That duty is part of justice, too.
Mississippi is falling woefully short of meeting its responsibilities. Recent lawsuits, funded by rapper Yo Gotti and entertainment mogul Jay-Z, challenge the barbarity of Mississippi’s Parchman prison:
“The conditions of confinement at Parchman are so barbaric, the deprivation of health and mental health care so extreme, and the defects in security so severe, that the people confined at Parchman live a miserable and hopeless existence confronted daily by imminent risk of substantial harm in violation of their rights afforded by the U.S. Constitution.”
And the people who are incarcerated, who have no way to leave or to remove themselves from the violence around them, who are unable to arrange for their own medical care or obtain mental health treatment, are dying as a result.
But this isn’t just about the State of Mississippi. It is also about us. No matter where we live, we authorize the state to lock people up as punishment in the name of the “people.” We allow the state to use taxpayer money to incarcerate individuals convicted of crimes.
This means we also have a duty to speak out when people are held in dangerous and inhumane conditions. We need to tell the state that we are watching. We need to remind them – and each other – that when a person commits a crime, they do not forfeit their humanity or human dignity.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. eloquently declared from his prison cell in Birmingham, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Nineteen deaths in one state prison system in just two months are far too many. We need to stand up and say so.