Mississippi Inmates Are Dying in Custody and Some Are Asking Why

mississippi jails inmates deaths
Mississippi Department of Corrections is investigating 13 deaths of inmates during August alone. iStock

A run of inmate deaths in Mississippi jails during August led the Department of Corrections to play down concern among the public about the unexplained fatalities as "not out of line" with other months and that "a majority" were due to natural causes.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections has not yet published a breakdown of what caused the 13 fatalities under investigation. The department did not immediately respond to a request for more information on the deaths. According to CNN, 47 Mississippi inmates died in 2015, 53 died in 2014, and 71 in 2013.

At least one of the deaths came after an altercation between inmates. The department reported on August 20 that armed robbery convict Nija Syvallus Bonhomme, 24, was found on the floor at the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility and medical staff could not revive him.

A day after Bonhomme's death, Commissioner Pelicia E. Hall noted 10 inmate deaths so far in the month. In another release, the department noted five "unrelated" deaths under investigation and that the "cause and manner of death are pending an autopsy" in each case.

A further eight names are listed as under investigation, taking the total to 13. Only Bonhomme's statement gives any information on what might have caused the death.

In a statement Monday, Hall said her department "takes seriously its constitutional mandate to provide healthcare to all individuals in its custody. All deaths are investigated to determine whether foul play is involved. If foul play is determined, the cases are referred to the appropriate authorities."

"The number of deaths the department is reporting is not out of line with the number of deaths in previous months," Hall continued. "However, the department appreciates the concern from the public and remains committed to transparency. As such, the department has been the first source to make certain information about deaths available to the general public.

"Based on current information available, the department believes that a majority of the deaths are from natural causes in that they include cancer, coronary, and other medical conditions. The incarcerated 19,000-plus individuals tend to mirror the free world in that people from all walks of life and with all types of pre-existing conditions enter the prison system daily."

The American Civil Liberties Union in Mississippi said in a statement it is "very concerned about the seemingly sudden rash of deaths of persons who are in the custody of the MS Department of Corrections."

"Our hearts go out to the families of those who have passed away," the statement said.

"While reports of these deaths have not provided details as to the causes, we know that certain conditions can pose grave risks to prison health and safety. The ACLU of Mississippi will continue to monitor the situation to ensure health and safety of the incarcerated are a priority."

The names of the inmates who died in August so far are Ricky Martin, Lucious Bolton, James D. Myrick, Nija Syvallus Bonhomme​, John Richard Luttrell​, Nicole Marie Rathman, Troy M. Pittman, Tony Springer Sr., Jack Glisson, Willie Hollinghead, Albert McGee, Robert Joseph, and Charles R. McCullough.

This article was updated to include a comment from the ACLU.