According to an article in the Jackson newspaper, the Clarion Ledger, dated Feb. 2, at least 14 inmates have been found dead in Mississippi prisons since late December 2019. Most of these wrongful deaths, the article continued, occurred at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Sunflower County, better known as Parchman Farm.
The article revealed the prison’s long difficulty maintaining the general health of inmates, with many bathroom facilities in states of disrepair, and mold and mildew running rampant on cell walls. Jay Z’s Team Roc is funding a lawsuit by two dozen inmates suing the state for the conditions of its prisons, especially at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, which the article called “a troubled Mississippi prison.”
That is a brief and delicate way of putting it that, sadly, only scratches the surface. Parchman’s history is dark and tainted with racism. In its early days, Parchman existed as an organ of a racist administration to keep recently emancipated African Americans under a yoke of inferiority and servitude to whites. In his 1996 book Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, the American historian David M. Oshinksy dives into that dark past and brings it out into the light, revealing that conditions as a convict laborer at Parchman Farm were truly “worse than slavery.”
I read that book as assigned reading in Professor Melissa Jones’s Mississippi History class in the spring semester of 2019. With the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery was abolished as an economic and social institution, with the stated exception as a punishment for a convicted criminal. I remember Professor Jones introduced the course with words to the effect of: “It’s a difficult thing getting Mississippians to modernize.” I think, after learning what I have learned, it’s a difficult thing getting Mississippians to humanize.
Parchman Farm was founded in 1904 in the wake of mass incarcerations resulting from Black Codes and other laws designed as stumbling blocks for recently emancipated African Americans. Oshinsky writes these Black Codes, which Mississippi was the first to legalize, were created “to control the labor supply, to protect the freedman from his own ‘vices,’ and to ensure the superior position of whites in southern life.” In addition to outlawing “mischief” and prohibiting the ownership of guns, the key element of the Black Codes was the Vagrancy Act. This act, “designed to drive ex-slaves back to their home plantations,” stipulated every African American over age 18 had to have a labor contract at the start of every year or pay a fine. The kicker was most African Americans couldn’t pay the $50 fine (they were just released from slavery, after all), so they would work for a white man in exchange for him paying the fine. This was the birth of a system called convict leasing, where prisons emptied their cells to large landowners who rented inmates for a day’s labor.
But convict leasing only existed from the 1860s to the 1890s, and Parchman wasn’t founded until 1904. Parchman was the answer to convict leasing. Independent farmers were upended by the state as employers of convict labor with the founding of Parchman Farm, a 20th century prison run like a 19th century plantation.
At Parchman, prisoners worked the cotton fields from sunrise to sunset in the hot Mississippi sun, routinely collapsing from sunstroke and exhaustion. Drivers on horseback ordered the prisoners to work, threatening them with the lash, “the true symbol of authority and discipline at Parchman,” if they fell behind the day’s quota. Prison officials defended whipping, administered by a lengthy leather strap known as “Black Annie,” claiming it was “the perfect instrument of discipline in a prison populated by the wayward children of former slaves.” This antebellum world would exist until a court case in 1972 declared Parchman undergo significant reform to become a “constitutional prison.” Parchman could no longer exist as “a farm with slaves.” Mississippians had to modernize.
But, despite how far Mississippi has come, there is still a little ways left to go.
The article in the Clarion Ledger I mentioned earlier cited studies that revealed mold and mildew running rampant through the jail. Several bathroom facilities are in squalid states of disrepair. An article on the CNN website corroborated those reported conditions with inmate reports of drains running over onto cell room floors, covering them with sewage. As gang violence causes cell blocks to go under lockdown, inmates are cut off from showers. Some inmates even reported that the gangs have some prison guards among their ranks.
This is not the prison system the people of Mississippi deserve. It is a shame and a disgrace that such conditions should exist in 2020. I think prison should not be just a dungeon for criminals. It should instead be a place where people can learn from their actions and change for the better, receiving punishment tempered with rehabilitation.
In a country where African American offenders are called “super predators” in blanket statements on crime, I hear many of the same attitudes that dictated prison policy over 100 years ago. Many people in offices of influence are still being influenced by the assumptions and prejudices of long-dead racists. There comes a time where we have to let the past be the past. This state and this country need a constructive prison system that rehabilitates more than it punishes. We need a prison system that punishes through the sacrifice of certain civil liberties, not through the sacrifice of innate human dignity.