By Emily Le Coz
JACKSON, Mississippi (Reuters) - A Mississippi prison for severely mentally ill inmates is infested with rats that prisoners sell to one another as pets, two civil liberties groups claimed in a federal lawsuit filed on Thursday.
Inmates at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Meridian live under "barbaric" conditions, in filthy quarters without working lights or toilets, forcing them to defecate on Styrofoam trays or into trash bags, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center claimed in the lawsuit.
Beatings, rape, robbery and riots are commonplace, and inmates are denied access to medication and psychiatric care, the 83-page complaint stated.
The privately run prison "is an extremely dangerous facility operating in a perpetual state of crisis" and inmates' human rights are violated daily, according to the groups. Some prisoners set fires in a desperate attempt to get medical attention in emergencies, the lawsuit said.
"I've been in prisons all around the country, and this is the worst I've ever seen," said Gabriel B. Eber, staff counsel for the ACLU's National Prison Project.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections, whose top officials were named as defendants, declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit, said department spokeswoman Grace Fisher.
The class action lawsuit says state prison officials have been aware of the conditions at the facility for years but have not remedied the problems.
In one instance, according to the lawsuit, an otherwise healthy inmate had to have a testicle removed after prison officials repeatedly denied his request for medical help when it swelled to the size of a softball from cancer.
The abundance of rats has resulted in some prisoners using them as currency, trading the captured animals for cigarettes or selling them as pets with makeshift leashes, the lawsuit said.
East Mississippi Correctional Facility houses some 1,500 inmates, almost all of whom are mentally ill, Fisher said. It is operated by Utah-based Management & Training Corporation, a private contractor that took over management of the prison last year.
The company was not named in the lawsuit, but its spokesman Issa Arnita said it has been "working very hard to improve the conditions and (has) made a lot of progress over these past 10 months."
Prisoners' family members gathered on Thursday outside the state's Department of Corrections building in Jackson, where the ACLU and SPLC announced the lawsuit. The family members spoke out against what they call inhumane treatment and the oversight of prisons by private contractors.
"Please, please don't put a price tag on our loved ones," said Katie Autry, whose 28-year-old mentally ill son is serving time at the prison for manslaughter. "Make sure they get the help they desperately need."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Richard Chang)