Mississippi State Prisons and some county jails have been in the news a lot recently. The conditions as seen on television and other media outlets can best be described as abysmal. The word abysmal might be an understatement for the conditions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. We won’t go into all the reasons that have contributed to this monumental problem other than to say a lack of money, arising from a lack of interest in people who are incarcerated. This is an unusual attitude from Legislators and the public at large, considering the high rate at which Mississippi incarcerates its citizens. You can hardly talk to a person nowadays that does not have a distant family member or a friend who has been incarcerated. Drugs are of course one of the largest reasons. There is hope that society is seeing the drug problem as a health and mental illness problem now instead of war. The idea of rehabilitation has not driven very many positive changes.
Chuck Mullins, a member of Coxwell & Associates, PLLC, a Jackson, Mississippi law firm, has practiced in the area of civil rights for much of his 25 years of law practice. Back in 1998, Chuck prepared a civil rights case for trial which involved the death of a young man who was out of his mind, high on drugs. When the police arrived, instead of treating him as you would a mentally ill person, they treated him with punches and strikes with their baton-like flashlights. They also sat on this skinny boy causing him to die from positional asphyxia. Merrida Coxwell and Chuck Mullins tried the case and obtained a 2.1 million-dollar verdict plus attorney fees against the municipality. This was little comfort to the mom and dad who deeply loved their boy. Incidentally, the father was himself in law enforcement. Mr. Mullins was able to accept the case and work it up for trial because counties, municipalities, and private prisons can be sued for money damages. Counties and municipalities can be sued under a Federal Civil Rights Statute, 42 U.S.C. §1983. Counties and municipalities can also be sued under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act, but a person cannot sue under the Tort Claim Act if they are incarcerated. And what most people don’t know, including lawyers, is that you cannot sue the State of Mississippi or any State in Federal Court and collect money damages. The State has Sovereign Immunity. This is why attorneys do not take cases for personal injuries against the State of Mississippi. Suits against the State are best left to public service organizations that sue the State for what is called Declaratory Relief.
Currently, Chuck Mullins has about fifteen (15) cases pending against counties or private prisons for individuals who are or were incarcerated and who sustained serious personal injuries. The conditions he has observed would shock even the most cold-hearted person. They often arise from what appears to be the callousness of those in charge. Here is a good and typical example of the types of cases we handle in this area. It comes as a shock and sometimes complaint against us from people when they learn we do not handle every civil rights case. Our practice is limited to cases that involve serious injury. We are mindful and respectful of those cases that do not involve serious injury, but the simple truth is that the legal system is too expensive to try and move a routine civil rights violation through the system. There is an organization in Mississippi that is trying to keep a record of civil rights violations. They are looking for systemic patterns of abuse. We generally direct people with no injury to that organization.