Mississippi moms question state as they bury slain inmates

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In this image made from Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, video, Theresa Holliman, a sister of slain inmate Roosevelt Holliman, with her mother Jeffrie Holliman, speaks during an interview in Hattiesburg, Miss. Jeffrie Holliman and two other mothers across Mississippi are planning funerals, wondering how and why sons convicted on those charges were killed in state prison. All three were slain by fellow inmates at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman last week, along with two inmates killed in prisons elsewhere in the state, part of an outbreak of violence that’s calling national attention to problems that have long existed in Mississippi’s overstretched prison system. (AP Photo)

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — Manslaughter isn’t supposed to be a death sentence. Nor is burglary. Nor is armed robbery, selling cocaine or stealing a vehicle.

But that is what the mothers of three inmates say was ultimately given to their sons, all of whom were killed in prison violence last week. As they plan their children’s funerals, they are demanding answers. They want to know what happened, and why.

All three prisoners were slain by fellow inmates at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman last week. Two other inmates were killed in prisons elsewhere in the state. The outbreak of violence has brought national attention to problems that have long plagued Mississippi’s overstretched prison system.

The mothers were told by their sons’ fellow inmates that their deaths were gruesome.

“He was beat. He was stabbed. His chest, stomach. … He has, well, he had, a lot of bruises and things on him,” says Jeffrie Holliman of Hattiesburg, mother of 32-year-old Roosevelt Holliman, who died Jan. 2.

Rotonia Gates, the mother of Walter “Keon” Gates, says she’s been told not to look at the body of her 25-year-old son after he was repeatedly stabbed on Dec. 31. But she says inmates with contraband cellphones sent her graphic pictures and descriptions of what happened.

“All the information I’ve gotten has come from inside,” says Gates, a Southaven resident.

Denorris Howell’s body was so covered in blood that Sunflower County Coroner Heather Burton initially announced he had been stabbed on Friday, but later revised that to say he’d suffered a different kind of neck wound.

Relatives of all three inmates say they have few answers from prison official , and they question whether guards acted properly.

“They’re not releasing any information,” Rotonia Gates says. “It seems like they’re trying to hide something.”

Advocacy groups have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate. They have criticized state lawmakers and officials for writing laws that they say have resulted in Mississippi having the third-highest incarceration rate in the U.S.

Prison officials say they have only had enough money to fill half of the available guard posts, and they say the pay is far too low. The starting salary for guards is $25,650.

Gates was the first to die at Parchman. She said she doesn’t know if her son was a gang member, and bristles at prison officials attributing his death to gang violence. But she knows conditions at the prison were bad. She says her son didn’t have a mattress to sleep on and got sick because rain poured into the prison.

Roosevelt Holliman’s sister, Theresa Holliman, says photos taken on cellphones obtained illegally by the prisoners show rats crawling over some of them.

“You just see them laying on the ground, basically worse than animals,” she says.

She says she also was told that some of the inmates had no heat.

In July, prison officials asked the state for more than $22 million to reroof and renovate a 1,400-bed complex known as Unit 29, writing in a budget request that it had “deteriorated to a point that it is no longer safe for staff or inmates.”

Gates and Wilkins both say their sons had pleaded for help or transfers to safer spaces before they died in the violence. Wilkins says Howell talked to her hours before his death.

“He was telling me , ‘Mom, get us some help, I’m fearing for my life, I’m fearing for my life. I need help now. Please get someone,’” Wilkins says.

The relatives also question whether guards contributed to their sons’ deaths, since inmates were supposed to be confined to their cells or bunk areas.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections has not answered questions about whether officials are investigating guard conduct. A number of state prison guards in the past have been charged with bringing in contraband drugs and c ellphones and have been accused of aiding gangs.

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(This story was originally published on January 8, 2020)

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