After a recent outbreak of violence left five Mississippi inmates dead in the past two weeks, Jay-Z is helping 29 state prisoners sue prison officials whom they claim did nothing to prevent the deaths.
Jay-Z’s lawyer, Alex Spiro, filed a complaint on behalf of those prisoners on Tuesday (Jan. 14) in the U.S. District Court in Greenville, claiming that “these deaths are a direct result of Mississippi’s utter disregard for the people it has incarcerated and their constitutional rights.”
The suit names as defendants Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall, who recently announced plans to resign in mid-January for a new role in the private sector, and Mississippi State Penitentiary Superintendent Marshal Turner.
The court filing follows a letter that Spiro sent to Hall and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant on Jan. 9 on behalf of Jay-Z, Team Roc — the philanthropic arm of Jay’s entertainment company and record label, Roc Nation — and rapper Yo Gotti. In the letter, obtained by Billboard, Spiro wrote that the group was “prepared to pursue legal action to address this intolerable situation.” The newly-filed lawsuit does not mention Jay-Z (real name Shawn Carter) or Yo Gotti (Mario Mims) by name, but appears to follow through on the letter’s warning.
The court filing points to three inmates who died at the Parchman prison in the first week of 2020: Walter Gates, Roosevelt Holliman and Denorris Howell, attributing their “unthinkable deaths” to “the culmination of years of severe understaffing and neglect at Mississippi’s prisons.” It claims that these conditions violate the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibits the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.
Spiro, who is an attorney at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP, tells Billboard that “we cannot treat people this way, and it’s time to do something about it.”
The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages, and to order the defendants to develop and implement a plan to improve prison conditions and protect incarcerated people from violence. A spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Corrections told Billboard that the department does not discuss pending litigation.
Last year, Jay-Z also enlisted Spiro’s help to free 21 Savage from arrest by U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to acknowledge that the Mississippi Department of Corrections declined to comment.