In 2012, the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility was labeled “the worst of any facility anywhere in the nation.” The state closed it in September 2015 but then opened it back up in July 2021 because the prison system was running out of space to house an increasing inmate population. Within a year of its reopening, Walnut Grove was back on its downward spiral.
Inmate #133986, Belzoni native Garnett Hughes, 35, was diagnosed by one of the state’s medical experts as being “in poor mental condition and is only going to get worse without the proper care from licensed mental health professionals.” Serving 13 life sentences without the possibility of parole, he was among the first inmates assigned to the re-opened Walnut Grove.
MDOC mental health authorities routinely categorize mental health problems as “Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD)” and “malingering,” the U.S. Department Of Justice said in one of its investigations of the state’s prisons. So, Garnett Hughes was never given the intensive mental evaluation and care he needed, and he soon became paranoid about the people who were supposed to be his caregivers.
Hughes had pled guilty to a long list of charges – mostly kidnap and sexual battery – brought against him in 2014 and he was sentenced to 13 life sentences as a result. He was on the administration’s “watch list,” having escaped from the two correctional officers who had escorted him to his mother’s funeral on Sept 10, 2021. He had also escaped twice from the Alcorn County Detention Center while awaiting trial.
Hughes first became suspicious of the food at Walnut Grove when he saw a powder-like substance on his dinner plate while he was kept in the medical clinic for three days in April 2022.
This was the first time that Hughes had decided not to eat what was served through the prison food service. It was not a hunger strike but was rather a high distrust of the system.
Hughes’ younger sister and closest relative, Danielle Hughes of Belzoni, said that Garnett had suffered beatings and other forms of abuse at the hands of the correctional officers and would not eat the food they served him.
One of Garnett’s supporters reported the payoff of a witness to one of his beatings by correctional officers after they had turned off the cameras inside the Walnut Grove unit.
“The COs (correctional officers) wrote down that my brother was not eating, but they declined to record why he was not eating,” the sister said. “He avoided naming anyone because he feared retaliation. The COs had him sign a document that said he understood that he could die from not eating. He said he wouldn’t sign and asked for a copy of the document, but they wouldn’t give him one.”
After the Jackson Advocate report on his situation in May 2022, Hughes was moved to Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County, remaining there from May to December 26, 2022. Accused of possessing a cell phone and charger, he was moved back to Walnut Grove on Dec. 26, 2022, although the authorities could find neither the phone nor the charger, sister Danielle said.
Upon his return to Walnut Grove, he wasn’t allowed contact with any of his siblings, she said. But once settled in at Walnut Grove again, Hughes filed a rape charge against one of the senior correctional officers (CO) on October 8, 2023, an action known inside the prison system as a PREA complaint (short for, Prison Rape Elimination Act). He felt the authorities were not conducting an adequate investigation of his complaint. He then began a hunger strike on December 18, 2023, having refused over 27 meals from then through December 26, his sister reported.
Walnut Grove authorities threatened to force-feed Hughes, sister Danielle said. But he insisted that he had a right under the law to stage a hunger strike as a way of protest, and so the authorities backed down.
There were two other inmates who also filed a PREA against the same officer, Danielle said. But neither of those joined Garnett’s hunger strike.
On Dec. 28 of last year, he had his phone and canteen-commissary privileges restored, after a year and two days of suspension.
“He is now able to call his siblings and to order food, something that he hasn’t been able to do for over a year,” she said.
Adding to the problem was the closing out of his PREA complaint – his rape complaint – without any resolution or without even informing Hughes that the case was not being investigated. The superintendent revealed that there was no PREA staff at MDOC to do the investigation, Danielle Hughes said.
“Garnett spoke with a nurse who told him his PREA case was closed,” Danielle said. “He was never informed by CID [Criminal Investigation Division] or anyone else before then. So, he was upset about it. The hunger strike was done to draw attention to his PREA case. He was into day three of his hunger strike when the nurse told him they had already closed his case.”
On either the 9th or 10th day of his hunger strike, Hughes learned from the lieutenant in charge that the case had been mishandled and that they had now re-opened it. With this promise, Hughes agreed to suspend his hunger strike while the PREA complaint is being investigated.
“He’s waiting for some kind of resolution – any kind,” his sister said. “So far, he has not received anything. He also wants to file charges against the officers who assaulted him and the ones who had witnessed everything. But no one told him how to file those charges. He can’t figure out how to do this. The City of Walnut Grove would allow him to file charges, but he’s incarcerated, so how can he file charges with the city?”
Garnett is eating again, she said. “He’s waiting to see if the prison authorities will keep their word and investigate his PREA case. He’ll wait until mid-January and see if they will complete it.”
Danielle Hughes said her family has worked with ACLU sporadically on this case. Garnett has also had attorneys from Mississippi Disabilities Rights working with him. However, she is not sure whether the attorneys are still actively involved with the case.
“He said he hopes to hear something by mid-January, or he will resume his hunger strike,” she said.
**In the story headlined Walnut Grove inmate goes on hunger strike to protest widespread abuse published on page 3A of the January. 4-11, 2024 edition, The Jackson Advocate reported:
“Hughes had pled guilty to a long list of charges – mostly kidnap and sexual battery – brought against him in 2014 and he was sentenced to 13 life sentences as a result.”
More accurately, the report should have stated that Hughes had entered an “Alford Plea,” based on the advice of his attorneys.
The LawInfo.com Website defines an Alford Plea as follows:
- An Alford plea allows a defendant to plead guilty and accept a plea bargain even if they claim they are innocent.
- An Alford plea is based on a voluntary and intelligent choice to avoid a harsher criminal sentence.
- An Alford-type guilty plea means the defendant decided it would be better to take a known sentence than to take their chances in a criminal trial. At trial, the defendant could face the maximum sentence.
We trust that this brief insight into the finer points of the law regarding a guilty plea will dispel any misunderstanding or confusion that might have been associated with the reading of our Jan. 4-11report.