06/17/2013 01:54 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2013

'States' Rights,' a Preposterous Fraud in the Service of Abuse

Among my mother's commitments was her activism on behalf of prisoners whose basic human rights were systematically trampled. When she died, in 1973, our family established in her name a prisoner's rights fund that would allow University of Pennsylvania law school students to work for people who, despite juries having found it necessary to incarcerate them as a result of their illegal acts, deserved far better than the denial of fundamental rights that no one ought relinquish while imprisoned, the right to minimally clean living conditions and food, for example. Progress has been made, yet throughout the United States there are places that have yet to be touched by even most basic decency.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union have together sued the state of Mississippi for sanctioning prisons, such as the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, near Meridian, where routinely abusive treatment, squalor, and official crime against the incarcerated, most of whom are mentally retarded and/or mentally ill, are the norm.

How bad has it become?

First know that the SPLC and the ACLU offered to pay for an independent assessment of conditions at East Mississippi (and at another prison, Walnut Grove). Mississippi refused more than once, hence the current lawsuit, Dockery v. Epps on prisoners' behalf.

Here's how one of the complainants describes the case in a release on 30 May, 2013:

"The ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Law Offices of Elizabeth Alexander filed a federal lawsuit in May 2013 on behalf of prisoners at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF), describing the for-profit prison as hyper-violent, grotesquely filthy and dangerous. The supposed to provide intensive treatment to the state's prisoners with serious psychiatric disabilities, many of whom are locked down in long-term solitary confinement."

The ACLU goes on to say that:

"The Mississippi Department of Corrections...has known about these conditions for years but failed to protect the health and safety of prisoners. Prisoners are underfed and routinely held in cells that are infested with rats and have no working toilets or lights. Although designated as a facility to care for prisoners with special needs and serious psychiatric disabilities, ECMF denies prisoners even the most rudimentary mental health care services. The facility is dangerously understaffed, and prisoners routinely set fires to attract the attention of officers to respond to emergencies. Without sufficient staff to protect prisoners from violence, rapes, stabbings, and gang violence are rampant."

Prisoners, as a direct result of the conditions (including widespread, consistent physical abuse) have lost limbs, eyes, eyesight, and, in some cases, their lives, to (as a he New York Times editorial said on 6.10.13) "rapes, stabbings, beatings..." and other violent acts which the lawsuit claims amount to standard operating procedure in Mississippi prisons as a result both of deliberate official action and neglect.

This is, too, not the first time that Mississippi's Corrections Department has been cited for allowing horrid prison conditions to fester unchecked. An earlier lawsuit as to the Walnut Grove facility cited.

Let's be clear, too, about who is responsible for prisoner safety in all state prisons. Under the United States Constitution, each state is responsible for the welfare, and not simply the incarceration, of its prisoners. That is part of what is left for each state to accomplish under the Tenth Amendment, a constitutional provision which most states jealous of so-called 'states' rights' claim to cherish.

And yes, the reason I am deeply skeptical of states' rights claims in these and similar circumstances, and have been since I could read the daily paper, is because the states who most often assert what they call states' rights nearly always do it at the expense of the least among us, the poor, women, racial minorities, immigrants, the physically handicapped, the most marginalized, unsteady, menial laborers, the mentally ill, and the retarded.

Ghosts of Mississippi? One of them ought to be my mom. She made a difference in Philadelphia while I was growing up. And I'm betting she could in Mississippi, as well, then, or today, and I'm betting people like her, the activists of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, will now.