- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 11, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The Mississippi Department of Corrections announced Tuesday that a hunger strike at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution at Leakesville has ended, as the prison system continues to push a crackdown on contraband there and elsewhere.

The announcement came eight days after officials said 11 maximum security inmates had begun refusing meals in the prison’s Area II, which holds about 1,800 of the 3,000 inmates in Leakesville. Relatives supporting inmates identified more men, saying all were protesting conditions at the prison, including a lockdown they claimed was barring men from outdoor exercise and other programs. Corrections spokeswoman Grace Simmons Fisher denied that inmates were being barred from exercise and said an inmate caught with contraband encouraged unrest.

It wasn’t exactly clear Tuesday when inmates began eating again and why. Prison officials don’t classify an inmate refusing meals as a hunger strike until after 21 days.

At least two inmates whom supporters identified as protesters have been transferred to Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman in recent days. Fisher said they were moved because officials deemed them security threats to prison employees and other inmates.

Wendy Houston, the wife of Derrick Houston, one of the inmates who was transferred, wrote in an email that her husband began eating again when he got to Parchman.

“The family, our lawyer and myself have been trying to get my husband transferred from SMCI for over a year,” she wrote. “If we had of known a hunger strike would get him transferred then he should have gotten on it a year ago.”

Houston is 14 years into a 21-year sentence on Lauderdale County convictions of armed robbery, aggravated assault and escaping jail.

The department said guards searched for contraband in two smaller units at the Leakesville prison Tuesday, finding relatively few banned items, including shanks, cellphones and chargers, and tobacco.

“It is good to see that the amount of contraband we found today is far less than what we have been finding,” Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall said in statement.

Fisher said a guard was injured while “enforcing grooming standards” at the prison. She said the injury wasn’t life threatening, but couldn’t immediately provide details about its nature or what standards the officer was enforcing.

The prison has been locked down for weeks, with inmate movements restricted, in part because the prison system is conducting a statewide crackdown on contraband. The prison system has conducted shakedowns at nine state facilities or regional jails, with Hall pledging that all facilities will eventually be searched. She said the system is cracking down on banned items to improve safety in prisons.

It’s hard to verify claims about what’s going on inside Mississippi state prisons because the Department of Corrections refuses to allow reporters to visit. Some inmates at the privately-run East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Meridian are currently pursuing a lawsuit with the same allegations about poor conditions that are similar to those made by some Leakesville inmates.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/JeffAmy.

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