Ross Investigates

Mississippi Investigative Journalist Reports Gangs Still Control the State’s Prisons Despite Reforms

In 2014, Mississippi Legislature passed legislation aimed at reforming the prison system and reducing the prison population, after a series of reports by investigative journalist, Jerry Mitchell, were published in The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi in 2013, exposing gang brutality, corruption and abuse.

“But then all of a sudden, I kept getting reports of things getting worse,” Mitchell told Brian Ross in an interview with Brian Ross Investigates on the Law&Crime Network. You can watch the interview in the player above.

This year, Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting led by Mitchell has partnered with ProPublica in a project titled, “Locked Down,” to investigate the reality inmates continue to face from within, despite the allegedly landmark criminal justice reform in 2014.

Security camera footage taken inside Mississippi’s Wilkinson County correctional facility showed what officials called “a gang-ordered murder” on an inmate, trapped in a shower cell where he was stabbed to death by his attackers. The footage was obtained by the Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system, which partnered with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting for the story. The victim, Brad Fitch, was one of four killed in gang-related murders inside Wilkinson County prison alone, in the past two years.

According to Mitchell, “even top prison officials admitted that the gangs are in charge of these prisons so we’ve uncovered all these things of how gangs control how prisons operate.” He said this is what happens “when you don’t have enough officers” or what they call “floorwalkers.”

Mitchell also explained his approach to investigating and producing comprehensive reports on ongoing issues inside correctional facilities.

“You piece it together from inmates, incident reports, former correctional officers who have worked there, to really get the picture,” he said.

Regarding the overall response to his recent reporting, Mitchell said, “They’re not happy with me and there’s a lot of silence, this time.” Some officials have, on the other hand, acknowledged the problem, including Mississippi Corrections Commissioner, Pelicia Hall, who stated in a recent interview with Investigative TV that “when you don’t have an appropriate level of staff … safety is a concern.”

“I really just love reporting on hidden worlds, and this is just one of them,” Mitchell added, describing his passion. And in another example of “reporting on hidden worlds”, earlier this year, Jerry and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting made headlines in national newspapers when they uncovered a photo of three white, male, college students posing with guns in front of a road-side sign memorializing Civil Rights Movement icon, Emmett Till. Till, a 14-year-old African American boy, was lynched to death in 1955, after being accused of flirting with or whistling at a white woman.

“I had a friend of mine said that this looks like a trophy shot … it’s just very disturbing,” Mitchell said, commenting on his finding that made headlines. It marked “another black eye” for Mitchell’s home state of Mississippi.

“As reporters, our obligation is not to protect somebody’s reputation; it is to tell the truth,” Mitchell added.

Following Mitchell’s new series, top Mississippi officials have called for a review of the prison system. He continues to “fill a gap” in local investigative journalism. Reflecting on his continuation of the prison project, Mitchell tells Ross, “We really feel we are…I feel that investigative reporting is key, and it’s so important for our democracy…citizens have to have knowledge of what’s really going on.”

[image via/The Marshall Project]

Editor’s Note: This story was amended to better explain the role of the Marshall Project, which obtained the video from inside the Wilkinson County correctional facility.

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