LEAKESVILLE, Miss. (WKRG) – A Mississippi prison is continuing to pollute an adjacent creek in Leakesville after a push to fix the decades-long issue stalled in the statehouse.
The South Mississippi Correctional Institution (SMCI) has a 503 page file with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), with at least 30 violations issued since 1995, just five years after the prison first opened in Leakesville.
The most frequently documented violation is pollutants in the treated wastewater, or effluent, that the prison releases into Martin Creek. The most significant violations, in Sept. 2020, include levels of E. coli 387% over the legal limit and suspended solids 57% too high.
“This is pollution going into that water body that could cause fish to die. If there are kids playing in the creek and they swallow that water, that’s people ingesting only partially treated wastewater,” said Dr. Cristiane Surbeck, the civil engineering department chair at The University of Mississippi. “That’ll make people sick with gastrointestinal illness.”
Correspondence between a revolving door of prison leadership and MDEQ regulators over 28 years point to one main problem: overcrowding beyond what the infrastructure was designed for.
A 2019 letter recorded the facility releasing 1.6 million gallons of treated wastewater per day. It is permitted to release 450,000 gallons. SMCI’s wastewater treatment process has a few parts, many of which have documented failures, likely due to the overcapacity, Surbeck said.
- Clarifier: A round tank where the raw wastewater sits so solids settle to the bottom. If the flow is very high, the wastewater won’t sit in that tank long enough to let the solids settle.
- Aerators in the plant’s lagoons mix air with the water to encourage native “good” bacteria to break down the food scraps, feces and solids. When the flow is too high or one of the aerators isn’t working, the wastewater is not mixed enough and solids remain.
- Ultraviolet (UV) lights kill bacteria. In one inspection from MDEQ, one out of four UV lights were operational, leaving bacteria like E. coli in the water untreated before it is released.
“The amount of wastewater being treated is a lot higher than their permitted limit, and so then they’re finding all these exceedances in the effluent that should have been treated,” Surbeck said. “Overarching all of this, it just looks like they don’t have enough money to operate and haven’t had qualified staff.”
There appears to have been no certified wastewater operator at the prison since Dec. 2017. Prison leadership told MDEQ in March 2019 that contracted consultants visit once per week. The facility has been cited numerous times over the past few years for failing to submit compliance reports and documentation requested by MDEQ.
A June 2017 letter from MDEQ said the prison was “significantly non-compliant” due to fecal coliform violations.
State law permits MDEQ to issue fines of up to $25,000 per violation. A department spokesperson declined to answer specific questions about the prison’s history of violations, referring WKRG to the 503 page facility file. It does not appear the prison has ever been fined.
A July 2022 notice of violation from MDEQ said it was “not requiring a response concerning the violations. Should the violations continue and/or new violations arise, the Department may include these violations in future enforcement actions.” The exact same language was used in letters sent every year since 2017.
Neighbors of the prison in Leakesville have taken notice of the issue for years, most prominently through an odor from the treated wastewater released into Martin Creek.
“Our children swim and play in this water. Our fish and wildlife will suffer from this discharge. We do not want this. We do not deserve it. Most of all, we will not have this dumped into our water streams,” Wilford and Margaret Sowell wrote to MDEQ in Feb. 1995.
The town had a proposal on the table during the 2023 legislative session. It put together a request for about $24.5 million to upgrade Leakesville’s lagoon and build out infrastructure to treat the prison’s wastewater, taking the responsibility off SMCI.
“Not only would this project help clean up Martin Creek, it would protect it for future generations. The state cannot design and build a facility at SMCI, that would be able to discharge into Martin Creek, because of the low volume,” Mayor David West wrote to the legislature. “The best alternative would be a pipeline from the prison to the city of Leakesville’s [plant], that would discharge after treatment into the Chickasawhay River.”
The town said the classification upgrade of its lagoon would make it one of the most advanced in the state and provide a training ground for water treatment operators through Jones College. The pipeline would allow it to connect more businesses and homes from the outer, recently annexed, portion of the town to receive service.
In a letter to State Rep. Kevin Horan, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, Leakesville attorney Lee Turner advised that property owners near the creek are “exploring all legal remedies available to them” to force environmental compliance at the prison.
Mayor West and representatives from Leakesville visited with leadership in the Bureau of Buildings and Department of Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain, who supported the town’s plan. The legislature did not fund it. The entire budget for SMCI was set at $27.5 million.
State prison leaders are pursuing a new plan to use federal COVID-19 relief funds (ARPA) to completely rebuild SMCI’s on-site treatment plant. Mayor West said it is not feasible as long as it continues to dump millions of gallons into the shallow creek bed.
Funding for state prisons has not kept pace with the rising prison population. Mississippi has the highest per-capita prisoner population out of any state or nation in the world. With 19,458 inmates in the most recent report, the state could exceed its entire capacity this year.
“SMCI has never been in compliance with their wastewater discharge permit into Martin Creek. The facility was originally designed for, at most, 500 inmates and staff. Currently, SMCI has over 3,000 inmates, along with staff and guards,” Mayor West said.
Infrastructure has been crumbling at state prisons for years, attributed to rising inmate populations and neglect of aging equipment. Parchman prison has been cited over 150 times for violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act in the last 20 years. An April 2022 report from the Department of Justice found conditions in Parchman violated the Constitution.
State and federal reports have documented holes in cell walls and prison doors; collapsing ceilings; broken commodes, sinks, drains and tiles; exposed wiring; bird nests in windows; and roaches and rats throughout the prison.
A federal lawsuit claims state prisons do not provide basic necessities, such as a place to sleep. Inmates are allegedly forced to live amid flooding, overflows of raw sewage, black mold, rat infestations and lack of running water and electricity.
With staffing shortages across the board, the infrastructure issues have been overshadowed by crime and gang activity in the prison. ProPublica reported in Aug. 2019 that SMCI was run by gangs at the time, controlling the use of mattresses, wall phones, showers, food and determining where inmates sleep. Inmates have been killed, assaulted, and set on fire in the past few years as lockdowns become more frequent.
A federal investigation into the South Mississippi prison is now in its third year.