'A Ticking Time Bomb': Inside the South Mississippi Correctional Institution

When it opened in 1990, SMCI seemed like a godsend for Leakesville, a town of less than 1,000 residents halfway between Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama.

By Jerry Mitchell

Jeffery Wilemon clutched his gut, throbbing in pain as he lay on his bed inside the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in April. But there was no way for him to cry out — not unless he wanted another beating.

Hours earlier, inmates had slugged the 54-year-old and declared that he needed to “follow the rules” their gang had set for prison life, he later wrote in a handwritten pleading filed in Itawamba County Circuit Court.

After the beating, gang members escorted him to a different bed, where a gang leader held court, Wilemon wrote in his complaint against the prison, which is pending. The leader warned Wilemon that he couldn’t run or hide because the gang had members everywhere. 

The leader flashed his knife, saying he could stab him. Then he said, “Get outta my face before I break your jaw,” wrote Wilemon, who was serving time on charges of possessing a firearm as a felon and possession of a controlled substance in a correctional facility. 

In an interview with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, Wilemon said he knew that the gang was vicious, and that it controlled many aspects of prison life, from where inmates slept to how often they made phone calls home. A few nights earlier, another inmate had been beaten and burned by gang members and left for dead.

President Donald Trump hailed Mississippi last year for reforms it put in place in 2014 to reduce the prison population by providing job training and rehabilitation for inmates. Indeed, the White House cited the state as a model for federal prison reform legislation Trump signed into law.

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