Less than an hour into 2020, Sunflower County Coroner Heather Burton took a phone call from the Mississippi Department of Corrections. An inmate had died at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman in a "gang-related riot," MDOC personnel told her. She arrived at the prison and pronounced 25-year-old Walter Gates dead at 12:22 a.m.
Days earlier, on Dec. 29, MDOC had locked down all prisons statewide after 40-year-old Terrandance Robbins died in what the State termed a "major disturbance" at the Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville.
By Jan. 2, four inmates at Mississippi's prisons, starting with Dobbins, had died violently, including 26-year-old Gregory Emary, who died during a fight at the Chickasaw County Regional Facility that morning in Houston, Miss., and Roosevelt Holliman, who also died that morning amid an uprising at Parchman.
"All available resources are being used to address disturbances occurring around the state," MDOC said in a Jan. 2 press statement. "The MDOC is being responsible in investigating the violence."
Despite those efforts, another death occurred the next day, when 36-year-old Denorris Howell died during a fight with his cellmate, MDOC said. The agency claimed that his death was unrelated to the "major disturbances" happening at prisons across the state. The lockdown on all State prisons lasted until Jan. 7, when MDOC announced the end of the lockdown for all but two prisons—the Chickasaw County and Yazoo County correctional facilities.
On New Year's Eve, just days after the lockdown began, MDOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall submitted her resignation to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, saying in a press statement that "while there have been many challenges, my administration has kept its focus on that goal."
Mississippi's outgoing governor, Phil Bryant, and incoming governor, Tate Reeves, were both quick to primarily attribute the deaths to "gang violence."
But inmate deaths are not a new phenomenon in