The Mississippi Hangings
Between 1987 and 1993, 48 individuals were found to have committed suicide in Mississippi jails and prisons. Primarily, by hanging. Several of these individuals were in the prime of their life, and had no history of mental health or self-harm. Were they victims of their own fear and depression... or was there something more nefarious at-work?
David Scott Campbell was born on October 9th, 1969.
Growing up, Scott - as he was known - learned a lot about racial tension. He lived in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a small town in Neshoba County. Philadelphia is probably most well-known for a 1964 incident, in which three civil rights workers were abducted and killed by White Knights of the local Ku Klux Klan, with cooperation from local law enforcement.
That violent incident - which would later inspire the award-winning movie "Mississippi Burning" - loomed large over the area that Scott grew up in, as a young black man from rural Mississippi.
Family and friends of Scott would be the first to tell you that he wasn't a saint. He was a flawed young man, who dropped out of high school and got into some legal troubles during his teenage years. He had one child out of wedlock, with a young lady named Barbara, but was working hard to provide for his child and his own future, as both a seasonal construction worker and an employee of an offshore oil refinery.
Scott also had a bit of a reputation for being a ladies man. This characteristic played a large part in Scott's story, and - it seems - his unfortunate conclusion.
On October 9th, 1990, Scott was celebrating his 21st birthday in the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. The same town where, less than thirty years beforehand, three civil rights workers had been abducted and violently murdered by racists - who were, in turn, aided and abetted by local police officers.
With Scott was his then-girlfriend, a young white woman named Nikki. Nikki was the daughter of a police officer from a nearby town: Union, Mississippi. Her father, Officer Dwight Griffin, was an officer that Scott had previously told members of his family that he was afraid of. Despite his family's insistence that he give up the relationship, Scott was still actively dating Nikki, and didn't seem to be hiding the fact.
At some point in the evening, Scott ran afoul of a couple of police officers, who stated that they became interested in Scott when they discovered he had a two-year-old warrant out for his arrest; stemming from an incident in which he had allegedly fired a gun at another man. Scott was arrested for assault and public drunkenness... charges that his girlfriend, Nikki Griffin, claimed were "spurious."
She would later claim that the two were harassed simply because they were an interracial couple.
That evening, Scott was taken to the Neshoba County jail. And during that night, his first and only night in the facility, power to the facility shut off for approximately one hour.
When the lights came back on, a police officer named Dicky Sistrunk was conducting a sweep of the jail, and he found the body of David Scott Campbell hanging against the bars of his jail cell, in what appeared to be a suicide.
Officer Sistrunk entered the cell with two other sheriff's officials, and he began untying the pants leg holding Scott against the bars of his jail cell. They lowered Scott's body to the ground, and Sistrunk recalled seeing a two-centimeter wide belt lying across Campbell's shoulders.
I wish I could tell you more about the status of Scott's alleged suicide, but not many details were preserved. The body of David Scott Campbell was embalmed before an autopsy could be performed, which Scott's family claims was done without their knowledge or consent.
In the immediate aftermath of Scott's death, as his family prepared to bury him in Neshoba County's McDonald Cemetery, they called foul on the county's sheriff's office - and the rest of the officials that had rushed his body through legal processes without their thoughts or input.
The family of David Scott Campbell allege that Scott never wore a belt, so the presence of a mysterious belt at the scene of his suicide was suspect. And, most unfortunately, the sheriff's office could not provide the belt as evidence. That had quickly ruled Scott's death a suicide, and this belt - along with the rest of Scott's clothing - had gone missing.
In addition to the specific details not matching up for Scott's family, his family and loved ones struggled to come to terms with the idea that Scott would have killed himself. This never sat right with them; especially with Scott's parents.
M.C. Campbell Jr., Scott's father, made his thoughts crystal-clear in the immediate aftermath of his son's death:
"I know he didn't kill himself. I'll go to my grave believing that. He was dating a white woman. That's why he is in his grave today."
You see... the death of David Scott Campbell deserves a lot of criticism. Whenever a prisoner dies in the custody of law enforcement agents, suspicion should be warranted. After all, when a government official takes custody of another life, that life becomes their responsibility. But to lose a life in such a seemingly-careless way wasn't unusual for Mississippi at this point in time, in October of 1990.
Over a five-year period, stretching from the late 1980s into the early 1990s, the state of Mississippi would see dozens of these jailhouse suicides. And in this area of the state - where the dark cloud of racism continued to loom large - that immediately brought to-mind the racial tension of just years prior: when black men, women, and children had to live in fear... not only of ghost-like figures that lurked in the shadows, but the very law enforcement agents that were responsible for their well-being.
Ben Chaney, who was the brother of one of the victims killed in the 1964 Philadelphia incident, memorialized in the film "Mississippi Burning," had became an activist in the decades since. He spoke out about the suspicious death of David Scott Campbell, stating:
"I'm convinced without a doubt that he was murdered."
Reverend Joseph E. Lowery, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who take an active role in demanding answers for the family of this young man, also spoke out, telling local media establishments:
"Too many bodies have been buried under the ominous shadow of the long history of racial oppression including lynching, murder, and other acts of violence against African-Americans."
The officials that investigated the death of David Scott Campbell found nothing out-of-the-ordinary; they had no issue ruling his death a suicide, and allowed him to be buried at a local cemetery. But his family continued to ask questions, trying to understand if he had truly reached the lowest of lows in a single evening, a night that was supposed to mark his true ascent into adulthood. And, if so, why were so many young men killing themselves in vast quantities in Mississippi prisons during this time span? Was this a simple merging of poor jail conditions with untreated mental health issues, or was it a sign of something more nefarious taking root in the Mississippi justice system?
Those questions, which the family of David Scott Campbell have been waiting on, linger to this day.
This is the story of the Mississippi Hangings.
Andre Jones was an eighteen-year-old black man, who had grown up in the city of Jackson, Mississippi.
Jackson, which is the largest city in Mississippi, is also the capital. Named after one of our nation's most divisive presidents, Andrew Jackson, the area is no stranger to the racial tension that has plagued it since its founding, when the Choctaw Native Americans were pressured to leave the area to make way for America's westward expansion.
Roughly half-a-million people live in this area, within Jackson itself and in its broader metropolitan area. This area is primarily black, with more than 75% of the population identifying as black or African American. In fact, as far as American cities go, it is one of the most-populated cities with a predominantly black population, coming in just behind Detroit, Michigan.
Andre Jones was a relatively normal kid. He lived with his mother and stepfather in Jackson, had friends, played sports, etc.
His father, Alonso, lived in Port Gibson, roughly an hour southwest.
Andre's mother, Esther Jones Quinn, was the President of Jackson, Mississippi's branch of the NAACP. His stepfather, Charles X Quinn, was a Nation of Islam minister in the area.
That year, 1992, marked Andre's graduation from high school. He began making plans to attend college that fall, and was accepted into Alcorn State University. He was planning to study engineering, and he spent that summer working as a full-time paid apprentice for a local engineering company.
Andre seemed poised to have a great life and a great future, as he was a hard-working, intelligent young man with a supportive family behind him.
But on a single night, in the summer of 1992, everything would change for Andre and his loved ones.
August 21st, 1992, marked a momentous time in American history. The Rodney King beating had recently worked the media into a frenzy, and Hurricane Andrew was preparing to touch down in southern Florida. But this day holds much more significance for the family and friends of Andre Jones.
It was a Friday night, in the middle of the summer, and Andre was spending time with his girlfriend, Tanisha. It was Andre's last weekend before heading off for college, and he was spending what time he could with friends; primarily, his girlfriend. The two were hanging out, and driving around in a pickup truck, a 1991 S10 Chevrolet, which Andre claimed he had borrowed from a friend. That claim would come under criticism later.
At around 11:45 PM that evening, Andre and Tanisha drove the pickup truck to his family's home, in Jackson. They hung out for a bit, but left some time after midnight.
In the early morning hours of Saturday, August 22nd, Andre and Tanisha pulled up to a routine sobriety checkpoint, in the town of Brandon, Mississippi. Brandon is a much smaller town than Jackson, which rests on the outskirts of the larger, more overarching metropolitan area.
As they pulled up to the checkpoint, operated by multiple police officers, police allege that they witnessed seeing Andre throw an item out of his truck. They say that this was a pistol in Andre's possession, a .38 caliber handgun.
Police asked Andre for his driver's license, which he did not have with him at the time. So they asked for his name, which he willingly gave.
At this point, things seemed to change. Tanisha Love, Andre's girlfriend, recalled the police seeming to show much more interest in Andre after learning his name. She claims that they grouped together momentarily and spoke quietly after hearing him give his name.
"After they asked him his name, they all went to... a little huddle, you know a football huddle.. I don't know what they were talking about because they were talking low. And after that, that's when they came to the truck and asked Andre again, 'did he have his license' and he said 'no sir, don't have my license.' And they asked him to step out (of) the truck and that's when they handcuffed him. They shackled his feet and they had him handcuffed at the same time. I didn't understand what was going on."
Police allege that when Andre pulled up to the sobriety checkpoint, in addition to tossing an item out of a window - which they later determined to be a handgun - they also saw an open beer within the vehicle. In addition to these charges, it also seemed to them that Andre was driving a stolen vehicle, which he claimed had been borrowed from a friend the week before.
It was around 1:00 AM that Andre was placed under arrest, and taken in by authorities on suspicion of multiple illegal acts.
At around 1:30 AM, on the morning of Saturday, August 22nd, Andre's family received a call.
His parents, Esther and Charles, were awakened by a call from Tanisha, Andre's girlfriend. She told them that Andre had been arrested, and would likely be calling them sometime soon.
That call came roughly half-an-hour after Tanisha's, at around 2:00 in the morning. Andre called from the Brandon, Mississippi police station, and said that he was scared. He wasn't sure what he was being charged with, and didn't know what was going to happen to him.
This call was just one of five that Andre would make over the next several hours.
One of those calls came again, at around 4:00 that morning. Andre said that he had been transferred from the Brandon police station to a jail in Simpson County. The jail, which was roughly 40 miles southeast of Jackson, was in the town of Mendenhall, Mississippi.
The reasoning, the family would later learn, is that the jail in Brandon's Rankin County had been over-populated, so Andre was sent down to the neighboring county to the south, down in Mendenhall.
In this 4:00 AM phone call, Andre stressed again to his parents that he still wasn't sure what he was being charged with, and he wouldn't be able to learn until Monday morning, when he could stand in front of a judge for an arraignment.
Throughout Saturday, the family and loved ones of Andre had to worry what would happen to the young man, who had been planning to leave for Alcorn State University within days.
It was the following morning - Sunday, August 23rd - that Andre's parents, Esther and Charles Quinn, received a knock at their door. When they opened the door, they were face-to-face with a local police officer, who said very little. He handed Andre's parents a small sheet of paper. Esther recounted this later on:
"It only had a phone number for the Simpson County Jail. There was not a note. There was not a message. It was only a number."
So, as any parent would do, Esther immediately called the phone number, hoping to hear some good news about her eighteen-year-old son getting released. However, the news that came back was anything but good.
"I was informed that Andre had committed suicide. I was casually informed... as if they could've been talking to someone that didn't even know who he was."
To those that knew Andre Jones, this news was a punch in the gut. But to his family - in particular, his parents, Esther and Charles Quinn - it was more than that. It was a complete subversion of everything they knew about their loved one, who had such a bright future, and who they knew to have a steady head on his shoulders.
Andre had no history of any known depression or mental health issues, and had displayed no outward sign of suicide or self-harm in the years leading up to this.
Charles Quinn, his stepfather, stated:
"The motive could have been several issues, but we know he didn't commit suicide."
From the jump, Andre's parents very much doubted the explanation given to them by police. From the moment they heard that Andre had committed suicide, they doubted that narrative.
Authorities, though, offered up a much less conspiratorial perspective. They stated that Andre, who had never been in legal trouble before, had simply gotten spooked by the threat of going to prison.
John Abernathy, the Chief Deputy for the Simpson County Sheriff's Department, stated:
"It was his first time in jail, and he was upset because the guys in the cell with him told him he was going to Parchman."
Parchman, if you are unaware, is the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which is notoriously horrible by any metric. The prison has a reputation for being a miserable place to exist, referred to in William Faulkner's novel, "The Mansion," as "destination doom." In fact, David Oshinsky, a historian, said in 1996:
"Throughout the American South, Parchman Farm is synonymous with punishment and brutality."
Police seemed to be of the understanding that Andre Jones, faced with the possibility of spending an unknown amount of time in the Mississipi State Pen, aka Parchman, decided to take his own life.
Dr. Steven Hayne, a forensic pathologist who conducted an overwhelming majority of the state's autopsies, performed the autopsy of Andre Jones.
Dr. Hayne found the marks on Andre's neck to be consistent with hanging, and found no evidence of bruising on Andre's neck or other parts of his body, indicating that no struggle had taken place. At least, there were no apparent signs of one. Dr. Hayne ruled Andre's death a suicide, and that seemed to be that.
Immediately, the family cried foul on the local police agencies, who had arrested Andre and later found his body hanging in a neighboring county's jailhouse. They wanted to learn exactly how the series of events had unfolded that resulted in Andre's death.
They were told that Andre had been charged with four crimes on the night of his arrest: driving a truck with an altered vehicle identification number, possession of stolen license plate tags, carrying a concealed weapon, and driving with an open container of alcohol. However, this seems to go against what Andre's family had been told by Andre himself throughout this day in jail, in which he insisted that he was never made aware of the charges.
Andre's family was told that Andre had been moved from the Rankin County Jail to the Simpson County Jail because the jailhouse in Brandon was full. There was no room for him, so he was then moved to Simpson County, which had a reputation for being a bit of a dangerous, lawless place.
The Simpson County Jail was under the thumb of Sheriff Lloyd Jones, a law enforcement agent who had a reputation of his own. He was a feared white officer had been nicknamed "Goon" Jones over the years, due to his participation in several violent incidents from the civil rights era. In particular, he had been involved in the 1962 riots at the University of Mississippi, and the Jackson State University shootings in 1970.
Andre's parents, Esther and Charles - who worked as a NAACP Chapter President and a Nation of Islam minister, respectively - were worried that their son had been targeted because of their careers and involvement in racial matters. Sheriff Jones discredited these worries, stating:
"I've been a sheriff a little over seventeen years, and this is the first death I've had in this jail. I don't care who's in the jail. We don't ask, 'Are your parents NAACP members or do they work for the church?' That's none of our business."
Nonetheless, the movement of Andre that evening had worried his parents, and the circumstances of his suicide were just as perplexing.
While in the Simpson County Jail, Andre had been held in an L-shaped holding cell, which was shared by a dozen prisoners. It was on the evening of August 22nd, 1993 - that Saturday - that another inmate noticed Andre was missing from the holding cell. The only other place he could be was in the cell's shower area, which was dark and unsupervised.
This is where Andre was discovered, in the corner of the shower, facing a wall. He had apparently used a black shoe lace to hang himself, taken from his gray and red Air Jordan sneakers.
In the autopsy report written by Dr. Steven Hayne, it was noted that the shoelace around Andre's neck had been tied to an iron grate above the shower head, which was roughly eight feet above the floor. Now, I know what you're thinking - eight feet is pretty damn tall, even for someone of an impressive size. It was theorized that Andre would have needed the assistance of a stepping stool or something like it in order to reach this iron grate, but Dr. Hayne said that it was possible for Andre to reach it without assistance.
After this, the strength of the shoe lace was questioned. The family of Andre believed that it wasn't possible for a simple shoe lace to hold his body weight, but Dr. Hayne - citing the scientific tests conducted by the shoelace manufacturer - disagreed. He said the shoelace was more than sufficient in durability to withstand a body's weight.
The report prepared was sent off to other agencies for review, at the urging of Andre's family. It was sent off to other local police departments, as well as the Armed Forces Institute Of Pathology, the Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and the FBI. All would end up agreeing with the findings provided by Dr. Hayne, but that wouldn't deter Andre's family, who continued to suspect foul-play. They prepared for an independent review of Andre's death, which would explore other potential causes.
Charles Quinn, the stepfather of Andre Jones, claims that an inmate told the family - under the veil of anonymity - that police officers had used racial slurs to intimidate Andre after his arrest. They had allegedly used a racial slur that I don't feel comfortable repeating, in an effort to scare Andre into compliance.
This claim was rejected flat-out by the officers that had arrested Andre and taken him into custody. They, along with Police Commissioner Jim Ingram, claimed that Andre was very cooperative throughout his arrest, and was as non-confrontational as can be.
"There was no confrontation whatsoever with young Andre Jones. In fact, the officers were amazed how cooperative he was."
In fact, Commissioner Ingram stated that, while in custody, Andre had admitted to officers that he was a member of a local gang. He was also allegedly photographed showing various gang signs for officers, but those photos haven't been released in the decades since. His family dispute any allegations that Andre was in a gang.
This claim, that Andre might have been intimidated by racial slurs, also wasn't substantiated by the other inmates that shared a cell with Andre. But it provided the motivation for Andre's family to seek assistance from someone other than the police, who they were growing more and more wary of.
A week after the suicide of Andre Jones, in August of 1992, an independent review was sought by Andre's parents. Dr. James Bryant, a forensic pathologist from Chicago, was hired by the Quinn family to review the case; in particular, to look over the autopsy report prepared by Dr. Steven Hayne.
Dr. Bryant found that Andre had likely been strangled, stating that ligature marks found on his neck were inconsistent with the reports of the hanging. He also noted that Andre's knees, which were found to be buckled at the time of his death, were inconsistent with the body's natural reaction to hanging.
"The body has automatic reflexes so that you cannot tie a noose around your neck, bend your knees and stay there until you're dead. This is a fairy tale."
Dr. James Bryant also claims that in the photographs of Andre's body, he saw what looked like signs of bruising on parts of the body. In particular, around the eyes and the shoulders.
"He had some bruising under one of his eyes and also he had some bruising on the shoulder of the same side. The bruising could've been right at the time that he died or it could've been some time during the day, but apparently... he suffered some kind of blunt trauma during the time he was in the jail."
Due to what he could determine, he alleged that Andre Jones had possibly been killed, and his body was then staged to look like a suicide. However, he did note that this was based on his own gut instinct, since he didn't get to directly examine the body, and - as such - didn't have any direct evidence. He also noted that there seemed to be no sign of an apparent struggle, such as there being any skin noted under Andre's fingernails, etc.
Dr. Bryant's biggest argument, though, in favor of his theory that Andre did not kill himself, was the physical unlikelihood of Andre being able to hang himself on the grate above the shower-head, which was more than eight feet in the air. He said it was too high up for Andre to commit suicide, and therefore, he didn't believe he had.
"It is physically impossible for a person to pick himself up by a shoestring and hang himself from the rafters of a shower stall without the aid of a chair or step-stool. Accordingly, I interpret this death as a homicide, wherein the shoestring hanging was used to fake the appearance of suicide."
The conclusion made by Dr. James Bryant was immediately rebuffed by Dr. Steven Hayne, who was acting as the state's pathologist, and who had conducted the original autopsy. But, nonetheless, the findings of Dr. Bryant gave Andre's family ammunition for the many months and years to come.
The claim that the death of Andre Jones had been staged first surfaced in the week after his death, when the family still disbelieved the official narrative. The report by Dr. Bryant, shortly thereafter, cemented their position that Andre's suicide had been staged by law enforcement, and was perhaps racially-motivated.
An anonymous inmate - perhaps the same one that testified about the disparaging marks used by Andre's arrested officers - met with his family and told them a terrifying story. He said that on the night that Andre was found hanging in the shower of the holding cell, he had been taken away by officers and guards sometime that evening, and had been returned in a wheelchair. This is when his suicide was allegedly staged.
It is worth noting, again, that no other inmates could confirm this account of events. So it remains just that: an allegation. But this story, when added in with the various improbabilities of Andre's suicide, painted an unflattering picture of Andre's final hours. His family believed that something more nefarious had been unfolding behind the scenes, and Andre's alleged suicide was just the latest example of it.
In the aftermath of Andre's death, his family began to publicly connect his death to a recent rash of suicides, which had become something of an epidemic throughout Mississippi's jails and prisons. These were all suicides like Andre's, which featured deaths that loved ones felt were unexplored and unexamined.
In total, there would be nearly fifty of these cases, which had been documented in a stretch of just over five years.
Over the next several weeks, the tension surrounding the death of Andre Jones continued to escalate. On one side, you had Andre's family and friends, who believed him to be the victim of a corrupt police force... similar to the incidents that unfolded less than 30 years beforehand, within Mississippi itself.
A local newspaper, the "Jackson Advocate," featured a story just weeks after Andre's alleged suicide, which bore the headline:
"Are jailhouse suicides a new way of lynching black males?"
Many in the area believed that Andre's death marked a continuation of the behavior expected of Mississippi's rural areas, which had included the infamous incident from Neshoba County, in 1964. That was when three civil rights workers had been abducted and killed by the Ku Klux Klan, with police involvement.
Ben Chaney, the younger brother of one of those victims, had since become a civil rights advocate. He spoke out on behalf of the Jones family, who were causing a stir in the community with their allegations. Chaney stated:
"This is a continuation, it's a revival, of the fear that existed in Mississippi prior to 1964. These atrocities are just building up and are continuing."
On the other side of this divide, though, you had the police, who were less-than-pleased to have their reputation tarnished with these allegations.
Walter Tucker, the Police Chief of Brandon, Mississippi - the city where Andre Jones had been arrested - stated about the allegations that Andre's death was staged:
"How long are you all going to call this an alleged suicide? Everybody in the world has determined it was a suicide. Even the Justice Department and the United States Armes Forces Institute Of Pathology and the grand juries and all the investigations - the FBI and everybody else has ruled it a suicide."
Even the Sheriff of Simpson County, Lloyd Jones - the man who had earned himself the nickname "Goon" for his involvement in civil rights incidents as a younger officer, and had earned the support of local KKK chapters in his elections - was annoyed by the assertion:
"I never killed anybody. I didn't even know the kid was in jail. And we sure didn't ask who his parents were. We didn't care. All they're after is money."
It was true, that the family of Andre Jones were preparing a lawsuit. As the various law enforcement agencies looked over the autopsy of Andre, and sided with the state's pathologist-of-choice, Dr. Steven Hayne, they were hoping to get a new authority to re-open the investigation. Not only examine the autopsy findings, but conduct a new autopsy, and conduct a thorough examination of the case from the ground-up.
In March of 1993, a coalition of civil rights groups conducted a series of hearings in Jackson, Mississippi. Their stated purpose was to discuss the subject on-hand, which was the recent influx of jailhouse suicides in Mississippi. These groups were able to determine that there was an issue, and it was specific to the state of Mississippi.
Over a span of roughly six years, dating back to 1987, forty-seven cases were identified as being problematic. These were forty-seven individuals that had committed suicide under questionable or suspicious circumstances, and - surprisingly - these were individuals that weren't specific to any one race or creed.
Out of the 47 pointed out as being unique, as far as jailhouse suicides go, only 24 were black. The other 23 were either white or of mixed race, but - just like the black men who had committed suicide, they all had done so over a six-year span, leading up to this meeting in March of 1993.
These were predominantly young men, who had been in similar situations as Andre Jones. They had been full of promise and potential, but their lives had gotten sidetracked by an arrest or a conviction, and it had seemed like they had taken their lives in the face of either fear or depression. But now, this coalition was casting doubt on that.
The stories included that of David Scott Campbell, the twenty-one-year-old whose story I told you in the introduction of this episode. They also included Bobby Everette, a 19-year-old black man that was found hanged in a Jackson jail just a month prior, in February of 1993.
For this civil rights coalition, this was outrageous. They pointed to statistics which showed that - nationwide - roughly 16% of suicides involved African Americans. However, in the state of Mississippi, that number jumped up to 52%. Over half of the state's jailhouse suicides were pointing to a drastically lopsided trend, which was as shocking as it was horrifying.
Barney Schoby, a State Representative who was also the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, shared some pretty strong thoughts about this revelation:
"We know that blacks don't commit suicide. Blacks have to live with too much adversity to commit suicide like this. There's a feeling among blacks across the nation that the new way of lynching us is to get us in jail and lynch us."
Some of those in-attendance, who were the family and friends of the white men and women that had committed suicide in Mississippi jails, called this a "human issue" as opposed to a "race issue." Others, however, pointed out that many in the African American community had long been pointing out issues with prison conditions, only to go unheard. Now, years later, after it was apparent that this was an issue affecting both black and white prisoners, was it getting government hearings.
Bobby Doctor, the interim chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, said as much.
"For a long time in this state you've had this kind of abuse taking place and directed against blacks and the outcry and the concerns expressed by the majority community left a lot to be desired. Now we see some of that drifting into the majority community itself."
These meetings, which took place in March of 1993, brought up many disturbing stories, anecdotes, and statistics which pointed to a blatant problem running rampant throughout Mississippi. And after two days of these hearings, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended that the Department of Justice open up a full investigation into the matter.
The following month, April of 1993, saw a federal probe being opened by the DOJ, to investigate the widespread issue of suicides plaguing Mississippi jails and prisons.
Janet Reno, the Attorney General, was quoted as saying:
"How could that many people die?"
She then directed the civil rights division of the DOJ to handle the investigation.
Bobby Doctor, the previously-quoted staff director of the Civil Rights Commission, stated about the rash of recent suicides:
"It certainly suggests to me that if you have that number of folks committing suicides, there is certainly something driving them in that direction."
The point of the investigation wasn't necessarily to find any evidence of foul-play on behalf of law enforcement; but, rather, to investigate what was causing all of these suicides, and to determine if it was something wrong with prison conditions or culture, and see if there was any possible changes that could be made. However, if any malfeasance was uncovered, that would certainly be something else entirely.
Jim Evans, the state's representative from Jackson, Mississippi, had been active in the early days of the Andre Jones investigation, and was thrilled that the Justice Department was looking into the matter.
"We are just delighted that this administration has decided to fully investigate. We feel like whatever the circumstances the public has a right to know. I think this is the beginning of restoring the credibility within the American justice department."
An attorney in Jackson, Mississippi, named Chokwe Lumumba, who was representing the family of Andre Jones, was asked for comment after the Justice Department's decision to investigate the matter. He said that he hoped the Clinton administration would "do a better job than its predecessor did," speaking about President George H.W. Bush's choice not to investigate the matter. However, he also reiterated that this would not deter the family of Andre Jones from filing a lawsuit of their own to demand justice and/or answers.
"Of course we are not going to rely on the Bush or Clinton administration. We intend to file a lawsuit to vindicate the rights of (Andre's family) as well as to investigate the matter fully ourselves."
In June of 1993, the case earned a bump in the public consciousness, when incendiary Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan attended a local fundraiser.
Farrakhan - who had performed the eulogy for Andre Jones funeral the year before - made a public statement at a fundraiser, which was being held at Jackson State University, in the school's Lee E. Williams Athletics and Assembly Center. To roughly five-thousand people, Farrakhan spoke on behalf of himself and the family of Andre Jones.
"I'm asking God to bring down his wrath on Mississippi. I want to acquaint you with a God who comes to kill. You will learn to leave black people alone all over America. Why not start in Mississippi?
"The biggest mistake you made in Mississippi is when you killed the son of a Muslim. To brother Quinn and sister Quinn: You are no longer alone. We will give thousands to help brothers prepare the best offense possible.
"Our children and our children's children deserve a better future. We can give them a better future if we take courage today."
Much of the enthusiasm gained throughout 1993 seemed to trail off as the year came to a close.
In August of 1993, the case of Andre Jones was reviewed by Dr. Emily Ward, a specialist in forensic pathology, who served as the Mississippi State Medical Examiner. Andre's case was just one of several reviewed by Dr. Ward, and she looked over not only the autopsy, but additional statements provided by Andre's fellow inmates and other potential pieces of evidence, including the independent review furnished by Dr. James Bryant.
Dr. Emily Ward remained convinced that Andre's death, in addition to the other dozens of cases provided by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, were indeed suicides.
"I think that it's extremely unlikely that any of these deaths are anything other than suicide. All the deaths have been investigated by not just one agency but one or two or sometimes three."
To many, this was a poor outcome for a pressing issue. But others saw this as proof of something other than intrinsic racism or any hate crimes.
Throughout 1993, the argument began to shift from the rash of jailhouse suicides across Mississippi being indicative of an intrinsic racial violence problem, to a more wide-reaching argument about prison conditions. After all, these were all individuals that had killed themselves in Mississippi jails and prisons over a six-year period, and they stood as direct outliers for the trend of prison deaths in America. Something was clearly wrong.
Ron Welch, a lawyer from Jackson, Mississippi that specialized in prison litigation, spoke about this issue at around this time:
"The problem is not lynchings of blacks; it's suicides in jails. The numbers of suicides I've seen, eight or nine over the last year, are not unusual. The wonder, given how bad conditions are, is that there are not more."
Dr. Steven Hayne, the state pathologist that conducted the autopsy of Andre Jones, refused to budge on his belief that the young man's death was a suicide. However, even he admitted that the fault may lay at the feet of the law enforcement officials that operated jails and prisons throughout Mississippi.
"I could be wrong about the homicide. I don't think I am. But my main beef is the jailers. They're not watching them. They just put them in the slammer and leave them there."
Joseph Rowan, an expert on jailhouse suicides from St. Paul Minnesota, who served as the executive director for an institute named Juvenile and Criminal Justice International, also weighed in on this issue; an issue that he says was plaguing not only Mississippi, but several of its neighboring states.
"Jail officials in the South pay extremely low wages, hire unqualified jailers and offer no training in suicide recognition and prevention."
The issue that these experts were presenting - that jail and prison conditions had deteriorated to the point of many inmates choosing suicide over suffering - seemed to be just the tip of the iceberg. The claims of poor living conditions for prisoners in the south had been raised for years - decades, even - but had gone unheard or not listened to. It seemed that now, after dozens of prisoners had seemingly chosen to opt out of life entirely, that the issue was being raised in the media.
This argument was exacerbated when a former law enforcement agent stepped forward to add allegations of her own to the pile.
Andrea Gibbs was a former sheriff's deputy from Gulfport, Mississippi, a city on the southern border of Mississippi, along the Gulf of Mexico. She had worked for a youth detention facility throughout the 1980s, up until 1989. During her tenure, she had witnessed rampant brutality and beatings of the detainees, who were mostly children.
In 1989, she attempted to raise the issue of the beatings to her superiors, along with three of her co-workers: all of whom happened to be African American. Shortly after raising the issue, and hoping to improve the environment of the inmates under their supervision, all four were let go and fired from their posts.
Andrea Gibbs went on to work with The Victim's Voice, a nonprofit that was raising awareness about the issue of prison conditions in the area. She spoke about the recent rash of suicides, and added in her own personal experience.
"I saw kids from 13 to 17 being beaten. There was systematic abuse and violence going on within the jail.
"I've never seen anybody hung, but I've certainly seen situations where it could've escalated into someone being murdered... it doesn't take an Einstein to figure out that the best way to cover it up is to yell: 'Suicide!' and wrap a shoelace around their neck."
While waiting for the Justice Department's investigation to get going, the family of Andre Jones had used the threat of a lawsuit to encourage action. Now, a year removed from the death of their son, they finally filed a lawsuit in both state and federal district courts.
This pair of lawsuits, which filed for $25 million in damages, targeted both the Brandon police department - which had arrested Andre at the sobriety checkpoint and initially detained him - as well as the Simpson County Sheriff's Office - which operating the jail in which Andre died a day later.
In these two lawsuits, several law enforcement agents and agencies were named as defendants, including Simpson County Sheriff Lloyd Jones, Simpson County Chief Deputy John Abernathy, Brandon Police Chief Walter Tucker, Brandon Police Sergeant John Henley, Simpson County and its related agencies, and the city of Brandon, Mississippi.
Both lawsuits proposed three theories on Andre's death: that he had died at the hands of police officers, that he had died at the hands of someone else as a result of police negligence, or that he killed himself because of emotional duress directly tied to jail conditions and treatment received by police. Specifically, it read:
"Andre Jones either was killed or was placed by defendants in conditions and circumstances which psychologically caused him to kill himself."
The lawsuits also made allegations that Andre had been stopped and detained without cause, claiming that the story furnished by law enforcement at a later date was fabricated, and purported that Brandon police officers had used racial slurs and threats of physical violence against Andre to ensure his compliance.
Later that month, both Andre's mother, Esther Jones Quinn, and his stepfather, Charles X Quinn, spoke publicly about the lawsuit and their struggle in trying to spread Andre's story.
Charles Quinn, his stepfather, stated:
"This family have committed themselves to fight and to stand to vindicate our son Andre until justice is done."
Esther Quinn, his mother, said:
"It has been a long, hard (and) difficult year. Our family has suffered tremendously."
The family was hoping that this lawsuit, at the very least, would help spur on some activity in the case, or to give it a look from another authority.
In 1994, the case of Andre Jones was featured on the program "Unsolved Mysteries," and included mention of dozens of suspicious Mississippi hangings. This helped bring the story to a national audience, in addition to some articles published in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
The lawsuit from the Quinn family continued to hang over the story over the next few years, as nothing changed in relation to the investigation itself.
In December of 1995, a Mississippi Circuit Judge removed several defendants from the Quinn family lawsuit, including state officials and Simpson County deputies. However, this judge also dismissed the defense's motion to dismiss the case, and allowed the case to continue against the four remaining defendants, including the estate of Sheriff Lloyd Jones, nicknamed "Goon," who had just recently been killed in a police shooting.
Eventually, the lawsuits filed by the parents of Andre Jones reached a conclusion, which is hard to decipher. One report claims that they received an unknown settlement from the defense, but other sources claim that both of their lawsuits were dismissed.
Regardless, the parents of Andre Jones continued to fight for more answers in the death of their son, hoping to find out what had led him into that holding cell on the evening of August 22nd, 1992.
His mother, Esther Jones Quinn - who now goes by Esther Muhammad - published a book in 2016. The book, titled "Mississippi Jail Hangings - Behind The Magnolias," addresses the story of Andre and the plight of the family in their desperate search for answers, and also includes 19th century writings from Ida B. Wells. Esther, who had dedicated her life to fighting against racial inequality, wanted Andre's story to be preserved, since there aren't many people left talking about his story or the other lives that were lost in Mississippi institutions between 1987 and 1993.
Racial tension continues to haunt the story of the Mississippi jail suicides, standing at the forefront of an issue full of complicated nooks-and-crannies, which are hard-to-explore without prejudice.
Mississippi, as a state, has often been condemned for widespread racism, which continues to torment a large number of its citizens.
It was the last state to ratify the 13th Amendment, which brought slavery to a close throughout the United States. The 13th Amendment - which excluded prisoners from its provisions - was ratified by the Mississippi State Legislature in 1995... four years AFTER the death of Andre Jones. But even when the Amendment was ratified by the State Of Mississippi, in 1995, it was never sent to the U.S. Archivist... meaning, of course, that slavery was technically still legal in Mississippi throughout the 20th and even the 21st century.
The 13th Amendment was finally totally ratified by the state of Mississippi in 2013.
In addition to overlooked laws such as this, the face of Mississippi continues to bear a haunted past. The state flag continues to bear the color and markings of the U.S. Confederacy, the separatists that decided to fight for a state's rights to own slaves just a handful of generations ago.
Neil McMillen, an author and history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, spoke about his home state and its many issues with race, and how he felt the area was helping regress the nation's discussions on race:
"We have historically been the state most haunted by race, and I think we are still the state most haunted by race.
"It's this business of having two separate visions, this constant division between black and white, that's just so depressing to me. The gap has closed between Mississippi and the rest of the nation, not because we've moved so far, although I think we've moved considerably, but because so much of the nation seems bent on heading our way."
Charles X Quinn, the stepfather of Andre Jones, said something very profound in the aftermath of his stepson's loss. He noted that the 13th Amendment held only one exclusion in its writing, which outlawed slavery; that exclusion, of course, came to prisoners. And if we know anything about America's incarceration rates, we know that law enforcement enforce laws that disproportionately target minorities.
"Today we people of color are rendered a verdict as soon as we walk into a courtroom. We only have to look at the prisons to see modern-day slavery."
Dr. Steven Hayne was the Mississippi state pathologist that conducted the autopsy of Andre Jones, in addition to several of the prisoners that committed suicide between 1987 and 1993.
Dr. Hayne was the one who officially ruled the death of Andre Jones a suicide, and testified to as much over the years.
Starting in the late 2000's, Dr. Steven Hayne's credibility was questioned, when it came to light that he had conducted thousands of autopsies every year, in addition to having his own pathology practice. He basically acted as a private contractor, who would charge the state $500 for each autopsy. This allowed Mississippi to save money through every year, as they didn't need to hire a full-time medical examiner, and could simply outsource the work traditionally required of an M.E. to Dr. Hayne and his practice.
And when I say that he performed thousands of autopsies a year... I mean it. Dr. Hayne testified that he conducted approximately 1,700 autopsies a year, which rounds out to more than 4 each-and-every day. That is nearly 7 times the maximum caseload recommended by the National Association of Medical Examiners, and for good reason: if a medical examiner or pathologist has to rush through each autopsy to make way for the next one, he's likely not giving each case enough attention to make a definitive decision.
This brought into question his credibility for several cases, including the death of Andre Jones and the other inmates that committed suicide in Mississippi prisons over the years. His testimony was successfully discredited in three major criminal cases, and resulted in the release of three convicted criminals: Cory Maye, Jimmie Duncan, and Tyler Edmonds. In each of their cases, Dr. Hayne's testimony had been crucial to proving their guilt, and without it, their cases fell apart upon retrial.
Steven Hayne was let go from his position in 2008, following a large public outcry. He was removed from the list of approved forensic pathologists, among several lawsuits and acquittals stemming from his now-discredited testimony.
Steven Hayne filed lawsuits against multiple publications, but that even ended up blowing up in his face when he testified to having credentials he didn't have: such as not being board-certified in forensic pathology, which he wasn't.
It is unknown how much damage this may have caused to several cases over the years, as the National Association of Medical Examiners considers performing more than 325 autopsies a year a "Phase II deficiency." This is normally enough to pull accreditation from a pathology firm, and Dr. Steven Hayne was personally performing nearly 2000 autopsies a year.
The decision by the state of Mississippi to employ Dr. Hayne in an unofficial position may have been an effective cost-cutting tool for several years, but it also did irreparable harm to the gears of justice within the state.
The investigation conducted by the Department of Justice into the rash of jailhouse suicides throughout Mississippi came to a disappointing end a few years after it started.
The investigation, which had been started in the first half of 1993 - following the death of Andre Jones - determined that there was no evidence of any wrongdoing on behalf of law enforcement. It found that the alleged suicides were most likely just that: suicides. There was no evidence of widespread racism or hatred driving the hanging of prisoners and inmates.
However, this same investigation also cited the Mississippi jail and prison system for what it called "gross deficiencies." It stated that issues such as overcrowding may have led to an increase in inmate suicide, as well as unsanitary conditions, negligence, and untrained employees.
So... what came of this finding? Were there any widespread changes in the state of Mississippi?
If you look at the numbers, you'd think so. Following the death of Andre Jones and the other inmates that were found hanging in prison cells, suicides-by-hanging in the state of Mississippi dropped down to record lows.
However, did anything actually change? Was there a new widespread policy put into place that changed the conditions within jails and prisons? Unfortunately, not really.
Jails and prisons may have made it harder for inmates to hang themselves - or others - but violence within these institutions still runs rampant, and seems to be an epidemic without a cure.
In 2013, a lawsuit was filed, which alleged various mistreatments throughout East Mississippi jails... in the same area that Andre Jones committed suicide. It included the gut-wrenching and heartbreaking stories of several inmates, who had to suffer innumerable horrors during their incarceration.
Take for example the story of Jermaine Dockery, an inmate convicted for rape and armed robbery:
"In late 2012, Mr. Dockery hanged himself until he lost consciousness. Staff cut him down and gave him oxygen before stripping him naked and locking him in an isolation cell. He was not taken to the emergency room. He reports that he was not seen by a psychiatrist while he was under suicide precautions... Mr. Dockery met with a mental health staff member, who was not a psychiatrist, who recommended that his medication dosage be increased. Although he did not see a psychiatrist, his dose was, indeed, increased.
"The light is constantly on in Mr. Dockery's cell and has been since February 2012. The flush-button on his toilet is missing. Mice crawl out of his toilet at night. Fires are a common occurrence in solitary and the air is thick with smoke. In March 2013, Mr. Dockery told an officer that he could not breathe due to the smoke. The officer responded that he 'didn't give a fuck' and slammed the tray slot closed on Mr. Dockery's wrist."
Then there is the story of Richard Roe - an alias given to a now-deceased prisoner who suffered from severe mental health issues:
"On July 29, 2010, (Roe) told mental health staff that he experienced depression, mood swings, and suicidal ideation... The psychiatrist's treatment plan consisted of only three words: 'encourage behavioral compliance.'
"Later that day, according to other prisoners in his zone, an officer asked Mr. Roe to provide a urine specimen which, because of (a) bladder condition, Mr. Roe could not provide. Mr. Roe began banging on the door, smeared blood on the cell door window, threatened to commit suicide, and tied a rope around his neck. Officers sprayed excessive amounts of Mace in his cell. According to witnesses, officers waited approximately 20 minutes before pulling Mr. Roe out of his cell. By that time, he was non-responsive and cyanotic. He was taken, his hands and feet bound by zip-ties, to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.
"For several days after Mr. Roe's death, medical staff continued to 'document' in the daily segregation log that Mr. Roe appeared to be 'in good health and mood.'"
If the stories of adults suffering through terrible conditions doesn't make you long for urgent change, then how about the story of a 16-year old who suffers from a multitude of serious mental illnesses:
"He is of small stature and appears young for his age. He has a long history of being physically and sexually abused in addition to suffering from a traumatic brain injury, limited intellectual functioning, self-harm, and psychosis... On January 10, 2012, when Doe Jr. had been at (Eastern Mississippi Correctional Facility) for more than four months, much of that time in isolation, he was housed in a cell behind a door with a broken lock mechanism. Five or six older prisoners entered his cell and beat him. He was then moved to a solitary confinement unit, where two days later he threatened to hang himself because he could not endure solitary confinement and was not permitted to contact his parents. Doe Jr. asked to see a 'psych doctor' but did not see one until the following day, when a psychologist dismissed his suicidal gesture as 'manipulating to be moved.'"
This lawsuit, filed in 2013, reached a bench jury just a few months ago, in March of 2018. That same month saw a similar lawsuit brought forth by another Mississippi inmate, who alleged major negligence on behalf of his captors, which resulted in him being sexually assaulted numerous times and, eventually, attempting suicide.
A Clarion Ledger article that detailed this second lawsuit, included a passage that I find really insightful, and speaks volumes about Mississippi's endemic prison problem.
"Dr. Bruce Carlson Gage, who oversees mental health in the Washington state prison system, testified Thursday that mental health care at East Mississippi is 'dramatically substandard. There's a risk of harm, and there's actual harm as well.'
"Failures in that care were 'pervasive,' reflected by the high number of inmates injuring themselves, 'far more than I have seen at any other facility,' he said."
I provide all of these stories and anecdotes not in an effort to promote any kind of conspiracy theory. I do so because they provide an insight into a serious problem plaguing the jails and prisons of Mississippi, in addition to other states. These are stories not just from other decades or centuries... these are stories from now, just months ago.
Even if you don't care about prisoners and other inmates that have been convicted of no crimes, I implore you to. Regardless of the wrong that any inmate may have done, the conditions from these prisons are worse than that seen in third world nations. We shouldn't wish this upon anyone, even those that have been convicted of serious and/or violent crimes.
After all, a large majority of these violent prisoners usually end up getting released. And if you were hoping to assimilate these people back into society, you should hope that they come back as better men and women... not shells of themselves, who have known nothing but violence and hatred inside of their cells.
It has been twenty-five years since the body of Andre Jones was found inside of a holding cell in rural Simpson County, Mississippi, but many of the questions asked by his loved ones - questions echoed by dozens of other inmates' families - continue to linger over his case. His death has been upheld as a suicide, but when we counter in the unexplored factors: the rise of Mississippi jailhouse hangings during that time period, the undetermined racism, the tarnished testimony of the state's pathologist who performed the autopsy, etc.... it paints a muddled picture that is hard to decipher.
If something else was unfolding behind the scenes, it has yet to be determined. But if Andre Jones, David Scott Campbell, and the other forty-plus inmates killed themselves, their deaths have gone without any conclusion... as it has never been determined why. Were they living in fear of the unknown, or were they all struggling with the same mental issues in their last moments? It's impossible to tell.
This is why I consider the story of the Mississippi Hangings unresolved.
Written, hosted, and produced by Micheal Whelan
Originally published on July 15th, 2018
Other original music created and composed by Ailsa Traves