JACKSON, Miss. -- Inmates in a Mississippi prison are isolated for long periods in "barbaric" conditions, sometimes in filthy cells with rats and broken toilets, and they are denied access to medical and mental health care, a federal lawsuit filed Thursday said.
The class-action suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of prisoners at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Meridian. It names the Mississippi Department of Corrections and agency officials as defendants.
Tara Booth, an agency spokeswoman, said the department had not been served with the complaint and would respond to the allegations in court.
The lawsuit said rats climb over prisoners' beds and mice crawl out of broken toilets.
"The extreme deprivations and extraordinarily harsh conditions at EMCF have even fostered commerce in rats: Some prisoners capture rats, put them on improvised leashes, and sell them as pets to the seriously mentally ill," the lawsuit said.
The complaint said the prison houses some of the state's most severely mentally ill prisoners, including juveniles, and many of them aren't receiving proper care. A
16-year-old inmate was put in a cell with an adult and sexually assaulted, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit also said rapes, stabbings and beatings were "rampant."
"Prisoner-on-prisoner stabbings and beatings are frequent because the locking mechanism on the cell doors can readily be defeated, and some officers are complicit in unlocking doors to allow violence to occur," the lawsuit said.
Some prisoners are denied care for so long that they set fires in their cells to get attention, the lawsuit said. It also said broken toilets force some prisoners to use the restroom on trays or in plastic bags, which they then toss through slots in their cell doors.
The prison has a capacity of 1,362 male inmates and is run by Management and Training Corp., based in Centerville, Utah.
MTC spokesman Issa Arnita said it would be inappropriate for the company to comment on the lawsuit since it's not named as a defendant. Arnita said MTC took over operation of the facility in July 2012.
"We are working very hard to improve the conditions and have made a lot of progress over these past 10 months," Arnita said.
The lawsuit said a prison official ignored one inmate's pleas for help until one of his testicles swelled to the size of a softball in June 2012. By the time he received an ultrasound, testicular cancer had spread to his abdomen, the lawsuit said.
During a news conference Thursday, Jody Owens, a Mississippi-based lawyer for the SPLC, called conditions at the prison "a shock to the conscience of a humane society."
"Enough is enough," Owens said. "It is time to stop the abuse of our loved ones, our brothers, our sons and fathers."
Owens said advocates asked to meet with the state more than a year ago about conditions but he said they declined.
Terry A. Kupers, a psychiatrist who studied the facility for the ACLU, issued a report in February 2011 that said inadequate staffing, poor mental health programs and an overburdened prison psychiatrist were major problems.
Some mentally ill patients tried to avoid the prison psychiatrist for fear of being injected with powerful drugs that made them vulnerable to thefts and attacks, while others saw their diagnosis downgraded and were taken off medications, Kupers' report said.
Kupers also said the inmates aren't getting enough food.
"All inmates report significant weight loss since arriving at EMCF, from ten to 60 pounds, and from my direct observation it is clear that all the men are much thinner, almost emaciated, in comparison to old snapshots I viewed in their charts or on their identity cards showing them much heavier" Kupers wrote.
Associated Press writer Jeff Amy contributed to this report.