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|Mississippi State Penitentiary|
|Elevation||144 ft (44 m)|
|Time zone||Central (CST) (UTC-6)|
|• Summer (DST)||CDT (UTC-5)|
|GNIS feature ID||675442|
|675442 is the GNIS ID for the populated place. The GNIS ID for the "building" is 707754.|
|Mississippi State Penitentiary|
|Elevation||144 ft (44 m)|
|Time zone||Central (CST) (UTC-6)|
|• Summer (DST)||CDT (UTC-5)|
|GNIS feature ID||675442|
|675442 is the GNIS ID for the populated place. The GNIS ID for the "building" is 707754.|
Begun with four stockades in 1901, the Mississippi Department of Corrections facility was constructed largely by state prisoners; it is located on about 28 square miles (73 km2) in unincorporated Sunflower County, in the Mississippi Delta region.
It has beds for 4,840 inmates. Inmates work on the prison farm and in manufacturing workshops. It holds male offenders classified at all custody levels—A and B custody (minimum and medium security) and C and D custody (maximum security). It also houses the male death row; all male offenders sentenced to death in Mississippi are held in MSP's Unit 29.
The superintendent of Mississippi State Penitentiary is Earnest Lee. There are 2 wardens, 3 deputy wardens, and 2 associate wardens.
For much of the 19th century after the American Civil War, the state of Mississippi used a convict lease system for its prisoners; lessees paid fees to the state and were responsible for feeding, clothing and housing prisoners who worked for them as laborers. As it was lucrative for both the state and lessees, as in other states, the system led to entrapment and a high rate of convictions for minor offenses for black males, whose population as prisoners increased rapidly in the decades after the war. Wrongly accused of having a high rate of criminality, black males often struggled for years to get out of the convict lease system.
Due to abuses and corruption, the state ended this program after December 31, 1894, and finally had to build prisons to accommodate convicted persons. The State of Mississippi began to acquire property to build its first correctional facilities. But, as Douglas Blackmon explores in his book, Slavery by Another Name, a study of the convict lease system, the South kept a system of convict labor in place until World War II. Generations of black men were trapped in the system.
In 1900 the Mississippi State Legislature appropriated US$80,000 for the purchase of the Parchman Plantation, a 3789-acre (15.33-Km²) property in Sunflower County. What is now the prison property was located at a railroad spur called "Gordon Station."
The state of Mississippi purchased land in Sunflower County in January 1901 to establish a state prison. In 1901 four stockades were constructed, and the state moved prisoners to begin clearing land for crop cultivation. The land was undeveloped Mississippi Delta bottomland and forest, fertile but dense with undergrowth and trees.
Around the time the Mississippi State Penitentiary (MSP) opened, Sunflower County residents objected to having executions performed at the prison. They feared that the county would be stigmatized as a "death county." Mississippi originally performed executions of condemned criminals in their counties of conviction.
The Mississippi Department of Archives and History says that MSP "was in many ways reminiscent of a gigantic antebellum plantation and operated on the basis of a plan proposed by Governor John M. Stone in 1896." Prisoners worked as laborers in its operations. In the fiscal year 1905, Parchman's first year of operations, the State of Mississippi earned $185,000 (more than $4.6 million in 2009 dollars) from Parchman's operations.
Originally Parchman was one of two prisons designated for black men, with the other prisons housing other racial and gender groups.
In 1909 the State of Mississippi acquired 2000 acres (8.1 Km²) adjacent to the MSP territory, resulting in MDOC having 24.7 square miles (53.9 Km² of land) in the Mississippi Delta. As time passed, the state began to consolidate most penal operations in Parchman, making other camps hold minor support roles. In 1916 MDOC bought the O'Keefs Plantation in Quitman County, near Lambert. Originally this plantation was a separate institution, the Lambert Farm. The facility later became Camp B.
By 1917 the Parchman property had been fully cleared. The administration divided the facility into a series of camps, housing black and white prisoners of both genders. By 1917 12 male camps and one female camp were established, with racial segregation maintained throughout. The institution became the main hub of activity for Mississippi's prison system. In 1937, during the Great Depression, the prison had 1,989 inmates.
Around the 1950s, residents of Sunflower County were still opposed to the concept of housing an execution chamber at MSP. In September 1954, Governor Hugh L. White called for a special session of the Mississippi Legislature to discuss the application of the death penalty. During that year, the prison installed a gas chamber for on-site executions. It replaced a mobile electric chair which, between 1940 and February 5, 1952, had been transported to various counties for executions at prisoner's native grounds. The first person to be executed in the gas chamber was Gearald A. Gallego, on March 3, 1955.
In the spring of 1961, Freedom Riders (civil rights activists) went to the American South to work for desegregation of public facilities serving interstate transportation, as segregation of such facilities and buses had been declared unconstitutional. The federal government had done nothing to enforce the Supreme Court decisions and southern states ignored the rulings.
Violence had engulfed the Riders in Alabama, and the federal government intervened. Finally the governors of Alabama and Mississippi agreed to protect the riders, in exchange for being allowed to arrest them. The Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, did not permit violence against the protesters, but arrested the riders when they reached Jackson, Mississippi. By the end of June, 163 Freedom Riders had been convicted in Jackson and many were jailed in Parchman. On June 15, 1961 the state government sent the first set of Freedom Riders from Hinds County Prison to Parchman, to make the protesters as uncomfortable as possible; they were put to work on chain gangs. The first group sent to the farm were 45 male Freedom Riders, 29 blacks and 16 whites. A call went out across the country to keep the Freedom Rides going and "fill the jails" of Mississippi. At one time, 300 Freedom Riders were imprisoned at Parchman Farm.
The prison authorities forced the freedom riders to remove their clothing and undergo strip searches. After the strip searches, Deputy Tyson met the freedom riders and began intimidating them. He began by mocking the Freedom Ride, being quoted saying, "y’all all a time wanna march someplace. Well y’all gon’ march right now, right t’yo cells. An’ ahm gon’ lead ya. Follow me. Ah’m Martinlutherking." The guards at Parchman Farm were relentless even after all of this mockery.
"When they arrived from Jackson, they were stripped of their clothing, and given a tee shirt and loose-fitting boxer shorts... no more. It was the beginning of many steps to try to intimidate and humiliate the Freedom Riders. They were denied most basic items, such as pencils and paper or books." David Fankhauser, a Freedom Rider at Parchman Farm, said,
In our cells, we were given a Bible, an aluminum cup and a tooth brush. The cell measured 6 × 8 feet with a toilet and sink on the back wall, and a bunk bed. We were permitted one shower per week, and no mail was allowed. The policy in the maximum security block was to keep lights on 24 hours a day.
Fankhauser described the meals:
"Breakfast every morning was black coffee strongly flavored with chicory, grits, biscuits and blackstrap molasses. Lunch was generally some form of beans or black-eyed peas boiled with pork gristle, served with cornbread. In the evening, it was the same as lunch except it was cold."
The Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, visited the farm a few times to check on the activists. He reportedly told the guards to, "break their spirit, not their bones". The governor ordered the activists to be kept away from all other inmates and in maximum security cells. With that order given, the Freedom Riders were stuck in the cell for the most part with not a lot to do.
As in many previous jailings of Civil Rights prisoners, they enthusiastically sang Freedom Songs, mostly direct descendants of slave spirituals. They made up songs to fit their new place. The prisoners sang these songs almost non-stop. They tell us that this singing nourished their sense of unity, purpose and spirits. Guard Tyson and the other white guards found the singing irritating, and tried to stop it. He said that it was bothering the cooks (!). Considering that the cooks were all black, it was clear that the effect on the cooks would be to make them "uppity..." He ordered the removal of the mattresses and bug screens to force the prisoners to stop singing. Next, the guards tried to barter with the activists. The superintendent finally apologized to the riders, and returned their belongings, as well as the mattresses and screens. It was notable that this negotiation occurred just hours before an inspection tour by a delegation of officials from Minnesota who were examining the treatment of the Freedom Riders. It was a welcome victory for the Freedom Riders.
As the 45 Riders struggled in prison, many others were heading South to join the Freedom Rides. Winnoh Myers was one of the women who went South and was eventually jailed for her activism. She witnessed the treatment first hand. She was treated just as the men were, with bad living quarters and worse clothing and meals. Although most of the Freedom Riders were bailed out after a month, Myers was the last to leave. She was visited as an activist. Their experience at Parchman gave the Freedom Riders credibility in the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1970 the civil rights lawyer Roy Haber began taking statements from inmates, which eventually ran to 50 detailing murders, rapes, beatings and other abuses they had suffered in Parchman from 1969 to 1971. Four Parchman inmates brought a suit against the prison superintendent in federal district court in 1972, alleging their civil rights under the United States Constitution were being violated by the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.
In the case, Gates v. Collier (1972), the federal judge William C. Keady found that Parchman Farm violated the Constitution and was an affront to 'modern standards of decency'. Among other reforms, the accommodation was made fit for human habitation, and the trustee system, (where lifers were armed with rifles and set to guard other inmates), was abolished. The state was required to integrate the prison facilities, hire African-American staff members, and construct new prison facilities.
In the 1970s the Governor of Mississippi William L. Waller organized a blue-ribbon committee to study MSP. The committee decided that the state should abandon MSP's for-profit farming system and hire a professional penologist to head the prison.
On July 1, 1984 the Legislature of Mississippi amended §§ 99-19-51 of the Mississippi Code; the new amendment stated that prisoners who committed capital crimes after July 1, 1984 would be executed by lethal injection.
In the mid-1980s, several state law enforcement officials and postal inspectors went to Parchman to end a widespread scam involving forged money orders.
In 1985 area farmers still referred to the facility as being the "Parchman Penal Farm," even though the facility was officially named the "Mississippi State Penitentiary." During that year MSP had over 4,000 prisoners, including 200 women in a few of the camps. When the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF) opened in January 1986, all women who were incarcerated at MSP were moved to the new facility.
In 1997 several prison guards were arrested, accused of illegally interfering with prisoner mail. On March 18, 1998 the legislature made another amendment, removing the gas chamber as a method of execution.
The lethal injection table was first used for executions in 2002.
On November 17, 2003, Larry Hentz escaped from Unit 24B of MSP; he was believed to have been traveling with his wife. The escapee and his wife were captured in San Diego, California on December 11, 2003. Hentz was returned to prison.
In 2005 Tim Climer, the executive director of the Sunflower County Economic Development District, stated that he wanted to develop MSP as a tourist attraction by establishing an interpretive center.
In 2010, the Mississippi State Penitentiary became the first correctional facility in the United States to install a system to prevent contraband cell phone usage by inmates. The managed access system was to prevent the authentication and operation of contraband wireless devices within the prison grounds. Other prisoners, visitors and guards had been smuggling in cellphones as whole units or in pieces for later re-assembly and use. MSP worked with vendors Global Tel*Link Corporation, which already provides permitted inmate landline phone service to the prison, and Tecore Networks to install the system with no incurred cost to the prison or the state of Mississippi. (Tecore designed and developed the Intelligent Network Access Controller or iNAC managed access technology.) This system reinforces Global Tel*link's highly lucrative prison telephone monopoly, which has been criticized for forcing inmates' families to pay exorbitant rates of up to $1.13 per minute for calls to and from inmates.
The managed access system renders unauthorized devices useless within the prison; it relieves the administration of having to locate or confiscate the devices. It permits authorized devices to operate unimpeded. The technology avoids the legal impediments associated with competing technologies for cell detection and cell-jamming. It ensures that all emergency 911 calls are permitted to complete. Christopher Epps, Commissioner of MDOC, announced the system on September 8, 2010, and suggested that it provided a model for other prisons to use to reduce contraband cell phones. Due to the installation of the system, between August 6, 2010 and September 9, 2010, more than 216,320 texts and calls were blocked.
Mississippi State Penitentiary, which occupies 18,000 acres (7,300 ha) of land, has 53 buildings with a total of 922,966 square feet (85,746.3 m2) of space. As of 2010 the institution can house 4,536 inmates. 1,109 people, as of 2010, work at MSP. Most of MDOC's agricultural enterprise farming activity occurs at MSP. Mississippi Prison Industries has a work program at MSP, with about 190 inmates participating. The road from the front entrance to the back entrance stretches 5.4 miles (8.7 km). Donald Cabana, who served as the superintendent and executioner of MSP, said that "the sheer magnitude of the place was difficult to comprehend on first viewing."
"Parchman" appears as a place on highway maps. The "Parchman" dot represents the MSP main entrance and several MSP buildings, with the prison territory located to the west of the main entrance. The main entrance, a metal gate with "Mississippi State Penitentiary" in large letters, is located at the intersection of U.S. Route 49W and Mississippi Highway 32, on the west side of 49W.
The Mississippi Blues Trail marker is located at the Parchman main entrance. Passersby are not permitted to stop to photograph buildings at the Parchman main entrance. The rear entrance is about 10 miles (16 km) east of Shelby, at MS 32. A private portion of Highway 32 extends from the main entrance of MSP to the rear entrance of MSP. U.S. 49W is a major highway used to travel to MSP.
The prison facility is located near the northern border of Sunflower County. The City of Drew is 8 miles (13 km) south of MSP, and Ruleville is about 15 miles (24 km) from MSP. Parchman is south of Tutwiler, about 90 miles (140 km) south of Memphis, Tennessee, and about 120 miles (190 km) north of Jackson.
Throughout MSP's history, it was referred to as "the prison without walls" due to the dispersed camps within its property. Hugh Ferguson, the director of public affairs of MSP, said that the prison is not like Alcatraz, because it is not centralized in one or several main buildings. Instead MSP consists of several prison camps spread out over a large area, called "units." Each unit serves a specific segment of the prison population, and each unit is surrounded by walls with barbed tape.
The perimeter of the overall Parchman property has no fencing. The prison property, located on flat farmland of the Mississippi Delta, has almost no trees. Ferguson said that a potential escapee would have no place to hide. Richard Rubin, author of Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South, said that MSP's environment is so inhospitable for escape that prisoners working in the fields are not chained to one another, and one overseer supervises each gang. A potential escapee could wander for days without leaving the MSP property.
As of 1971 guards patrol MSP on horseback instead of on foot. The rear entrance is protected by a steel barricade and a guard tower. In 1985 Robert Cross of the Chicago Tribune said "The physical surroundings--cotton and bean fields, the 21 scattered camps, the barbed wire enclosures--suggest that nothing much has changed since the days, early in this century, when outsiders could visit Parchman State Penal Farm only on the fifth Sunday of those rare months containing more than four."
MSP has two main areas, Area I and Area II. Area I includes Unit 29 and the Front Vocational School. Area II includes Units 25-26, Units 30-32, and Unit 42. Seven units house prisoners. As of the 1970s and 1980s the prison grounds had small red houses that were used for conjugal visits. As of 2010 the prison still offers conjugal visits.
"Guard Row" is the area where employees of MSP and their dependents live. As of the 1970s "Guard Row," a nickname for the main road that bisects the prison, has identical wood frame houses, most of which had been built in the 1930s by the Work Projects Administration. Around 1971 the state charged employees a rent of 10 to 20 dollars per month, a rate described by Donald Cabana, a former superintendent of MSP, as "nominal." The state provided housing for employees due to the isolation of MSP, and therefore the staff can quickly respond to emergencies such as inmate disturbances or escapes. As of the 1970s multiple generations of families lived and worked at MSP.
Sunflower County School District serves residents of Parchman. Students are zoned to A. W. James Elementary School in Drew for elementary, Drew Hunter Middle School in Drew,. and Ruleville Central High School in Ruleville. Residents were previously zoned to the Drew School District, and children who lived on the grounds of MSP attended A.W. James Elementary School and Drew Hunter High School in Drew. Prior to the 2010–2011 school year the Drew School District secondary schools were Hunter Middle School and Drew High School. On July 1, 2012, the Drew School District consolidated into the Sunflower district, and the high school division of Drew Hunter closed as of that date, with high school students rezoned to Ruleville Central.
Parchman, along with other areas in Sunflower County, is within the service area of the Mississippi Delta Community College (MDCC). MDCC has the Drew Center in Drew, while its main campus is in Moorhead. Sunflower County Library System operates the Drew Public Library in Drew.
Parchman also has three cemeteries; prisoners are buried on-site. A dead prisoner may be buried in one of two of the cemeteries. Hundreds of prisoners had been buried at two of the cemeteries.
The prison has a Visitation Center, which serves as a point of entry and as a security checkpoint for visitors to MSP. After security screening, visitors depart the visitation center in buses bound for the specific units.
The Mississippi State Penitentiary Training Academy and the Thomas O. "Pete" Wilson Adult Basic Education (ABE) facility are located on the MSP grounds. "The Place," a restaurant, is also on the prison property. Parchman has the Rodeo Arena, a venue for a prison rodeo. The Mississippi State Penitentiary POTW (Publicly owned treatment works) numbers one and two are the institution's sewage treatment plants.
The United States Postal Service operates the Parchman Post Office along Parchman Road 12/Mississippi Highway 32 inside the prison property. Mississippi State Penitentiary has a dedicated fire department, (MSP Fire Department) a wastewater treatment plant, road crews, utility crews, a grocery store, and a hospital. The fire department, which utilizes prisoners as firefighters, responds outside of the prison boundaries.
Parchman contains the superintendent's guest house, used to accommodate guests. As part of a longstanding agreement, the Governor of Mississippi stayed in the house once annually before conducting an inspection of the prison.
When the prison farm was first established, forests were cleared and land was put into cultivation. Prisoners "deadened" or circled the trees. A sawmill opened, and the wood was converted into planks used to build the housing in the prison. In 1911 what was then "Parchman Place" had ten camps, with each camp holding over 100 prisoners and working on 100 acres (40 ha). The central buildings, including the superintendent's residence, the offices, a hospital with a capacity for 70 patients, the general store, the sawmill, and the brick and tile works, were placed in a location referred to as "Parchman." The post office was located along a railroad. Each camp had a telephone system that was headquartered in the "Parchman" location.
By 1906 the state sent the healthy, young black males incarcerated in the Mississippi penal system to MSP and to the Belmont Farm. Other population groups in the Mississippi penal system went to other farms; White men went to the Rankin Farm in Rankin County, and all women went to the Oakley Farm in Hinds County. By the early 1900s the majority of incarcerated felons in the State of Mississippi were sent to Parchman. Around 1911 prisoners who developed chronic illnesses were sent from MSP to the Oakley prison. In 1917 the Parchman property had been fully cleared, and the administration divided the facility into a series of camps, housing black and white prisoners of both genders. By that year MSP had 12 male prison camps and one female prison camp. Throughout much of the prison's history, the prison authorities decided not to build fences and walls because the MSP property had a large size and a remote location.
David Oshinsky, author of Worse Than Slavery, said that in the early 20th century Parchman, from the outside, "looked like a typical Delta plantation, with cattle barns, vegetable gardens, mules dotting the landscape, and cotton rows stretching for miles." Alan Lomax, a folklorist, wrote in The Land Where Blues Began that "Only a few strands of barbed wire marked the boundary between the Parchman State Penitentiary and the so-called free world. Yet every Delta black knew he could easily find himself on the wrong side of that fence." Camp One became the administrative and commercial center of Parchman. It was located near the main gate, the railroad depot, and the main road. William B. Taylor and Tyler H. Fletcher, authors of "Profits from convict labor: Reality or myth observations in Mississippi: 1907–1934," said that Camp One, by 1917, appeared like "a little city." Camp One housed the residences of the superintendent and the superintendent's staff, the residences of the camp sergeant and the two assistants of the sergeant, a hospital, a gin, a church, a post office, and a visitor's building. The facility, known as the "front camp," also housed an administration building and an infirmary described by Oshinsky as "crude." Newly arriving prisoners were processed at the administration building, and they received their prison uniforms there. Taylor and Fletcher said that the other camps "amounted to little more than wooden barracks surrounded by cultivated land." Within Parchman, the camps other than Camp One shared 15,000 acres (6,100 ha) of land.
Around 1968, Camp B was one of the largest African-American camps of MSP. Camp B was located in unincorporated Quitman County, near Lambert, away from the main Parchman complex. Camp B's buildings have been demolished. Until the post-lawsuit units opened in the 1970s, Parchman's newest unit was the first offender camp, a red brick building that opened in the 1960s. The building had a fence, two guard towers at opposite corners, and a gateshack. Donald Cabana, who became the prison's superintendent and executioner, said that the building was "not physically impressive."
Around 1971, most areas of the prison had no guard towers, no cell blocks, no tiers, and no high walls. Cabana said that the prison was "a throwback to another time and place." Cabana described the employee housing as "by and large drab and in various states of disrepair." During that time Camp 16 served as the Maximum Security Unit (MSU); the building was surrounded by double fences with concertina wire, and gun towers were located at the four corners of the building. MSU housed death row inmates and inmates put under maximum security, and the camp housed the gas chamber. MSP staff called the building "Little Alcatraz." Cabana, a native of Massachusetts, said that Camp 16 was the only building that resembled the northern U.S. penitentiary that he was familiar with. Around that year MSP had around 2,000 men and less than 100 women in its camps. Most camps were "work camps" which had a quota of acreage to maintain. Some had special functions; for instance the "disability" camp did the laundry, and the "front camp" housed prisoners who worked in the administration building; those inmates worked as clerks, janitors, and maintenance personnel. Each camp usually had no more than 100-200 prisoners. Because the prison population was spread across many units, the population would have difficulty engineering major disturbances. Cabana cited this example to say "In some respects, Parchman was a penologist's dream."
After the 1972 Gates v. Collier federal judge ruling, the State of Mississippi replaced its previous inmate housing units, called "cages," with barracks buildings surrounded by barbed wire-topped fences. John Buntin of Governing Magazine said that the new units were "hastily built." Several MSP units were built in the 1970s; 3,080 beds were added for a total cost of $25,345,000. In the 1980s Mississippi State Penitentiary had 21 scattered camps. In 1983 Camp 25 served as the female unit, and the unit had no parking facilities. After Central Mississippi Correctional Facility opened, the women were moved out of Camp 25. In the 1990s MSP had 6,800 prisoners; in 1990 Mississippi had a population of 2,573,216, so about .026% of Mississippi's population was incarcerated in MSP at that time. The prison population had been increasing rapidly over the decade leading to 1995, and the prison officials converted a gymnasium into inmate housing and still faced overcrowding. Many construction projects occurred during that time.
In the early 2000s MSP had five areas. Area I had Unit 29. Area II had units 12, 15-B, 20-, 25-26, and 30. Area III had units 4, 10, 17, 20, 22-24, 27-28, 31, and 42. Area IV had Unit 32. Area V had Central Security. At that time 18 units housed prisoners, with the 1,488-bed Unit 29 being the largest unit in terms of prisoner capacity and the 60-bed Unit 17 being the smallest. At that time the prison's capacity was 5,631. The Internal Audit building, located along Guard Row, was destroyed in a fire in 2002. In the mid-2000s MSP had three areas. Area I had Units 15 and 29 and the Front Vocational School. Area II had units 25-26, 28, 30-31, and 42. Area III had units 4 and 32. At the time 10 units housed the 4,700 prisoners in the facility, with the 1,568 bed Unit 29 being the largest unit and the 54-bed Unit 42 (the hospital unit) being the smallest. At that time the prison's capacity was 4,840.
Karen Feldscher of the Northeastern University Alumni Magazine said that in the region around MSP, "Winters here are brown and stark. In the summer, days hit 90 degrees or hotter; come evening, the humid air buzzes with mosquitoes the size of B-52s."
|Climate data for Parchman|
|Average high °F (°C)||49|
|Average low °F (°C)||31|
|Precipitation inches (mm)||5.25|
As of September 1, 2008, Mississippi State Penitentiary, with a capacity of 4,527, had 4,181 prisoners, comprising a total of 29.04% of people within the Mississippi Department of Corrections-operated prisons, county jails, and community work centers. Of the male inmates at MSP, 3,024 were black, 1,119 were white, 30 Hispanic, six were Asian, and one was Native American. As of 2008, there was one African-American woman confined at MSP. As of November 8, 2010 Parchman has about 998 free world employees.
In 1917, 90% of Parchman's prisoners were black. Most of the black prisoners were serving long sentences for violent crimes against other blacks and were illiterate laborers and farm workers. Of the black prisoners who committed crimes against other blacks, 58% had sentences of ten years or more and 38% had life sentences. Of the black prisoners who committed crimes against other blacks, 35% had committed murder, 17% had committed manslaughter, 8% had committed assault and battery, and 5% had committed rape or attempted rape.
In 1937, the Parchman community had 250 residents, while the prison held 1,989 inmates. In 1971, the prison employed fewer than 75 free world employees because trusties performed many tasks at Parchman. The free world employees included administrative, medical, and support employees.
Located on fertile Mississippi Delta land, Parchman served as a working farm. Inmate labor was used for many tasks from raising cotton and other farm food products, to building railroads and extracting turpentine gum from pine trees. Parchman, then as now, was in prime cotton-growing country. Inmates labored there in the fields raising cotton, soybeans and other cash crops, and produced livestock, swine, poultry and milk. Inmates spent much of their time working with crops except the period from mid-November to mid-February, because the weather was too cold for farm work. Donald Cabana, who previously served as a superintendent and an executioner at Parchman, said that the labor situation was an advantage to the prison because inmates were occupied with it. Cabana added that "idleness" was an issue facing many other prisons.
Throughout MSP's history, most prisoners have worked in the fields. Historically, prisoners worked for ten hours per day, six days per week. In previous eras prisoners lived in long, single-story buildings made of bricks and lumber produced on-site; the inmate housing units were often called "cages." Prison officials selected prisoners they deemed trustworthy and made them into armed guards; the prisoners were named "trusty guards" and "trusty shooters." Most male inmates did farm labor; others worked in the brickyard, cotton gin, prison hospital, and sawmill. Women worked in the sewing room, making clothes, bed sheets, and mattresses. They also canned vegetables and ran the laundry. On Sundays prisoners attended religious services and participated in baseball games, with teams formed on the basis of the camps.
Historically most male prisoners wore "ring arounds," consisting of trousers and shirts with horizontal black and white stripes. Female prisoners wore "up and downs," which were baggy dresses with vertical stripes. "Trustee shooters" wore vertical stripes.
In the 1930s, most of the crops planted at Parchman were cotton. The facility's brickyard, factories, gin, and machine shop gained the State of Mississippi profits. For most of the day, the female prisoners sewed utilitarian cloth goods, including bedding, curtains, and uniforms for the institution. When sewing labor was not available, women chopped cotton.
For a period in Parchman's history, women lived in Camp 13. Male sergeants and male trusties guarded the women. As a result, sexual intercourse and rape occurred in the women's unit. Women lived in large dormitories. White women usually numbered between zero and five, black women usually numbered 25 to 65. White female prisoners lived in a small brick building, while African-American prisoners lived in what David Oshinsky, author of Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice called a "large shed-like building", with a fence separating the two buildings.
Cabana said that in 1971 the prison environment was "relatively tranquil" because many prisoners worked outside instead of being confined in their cells for long periods of time. The prison was still segregated in the 1970s. Around that time a black leather strap named "Black Annie" was used to punish prisoners who broke rules. Other prisoners who broke rules were forced to stand for hours at a time on up-ended soda crates. During the era, stronger prisoners attacked and raped weaker prisoners, and prison staff provided little to no intervention in these incidents. Some inmates worked as "houseboys," maintaining the residences of prison officials. Some prisoners were allowed to leave the prison grounds to pick up supplies and transport them back to MSP. Karen Feldscher of Northeastern Alumni Magazine stated that the trustee guard system often produced "disastrous results." Cabana said that the trustee system "apparently worked quite well, as there were seldom any disciplinary problems among the shooters." Because trustees performed many tasks, the prison employed relatively few free world employees. Because of the scenario, Cabana said that the prisoners were the people who carried guns and enforced rules, while in Massachusetts the prison guards carried the guns and enforced rules.
In the 1960s, shortly after inmates arrived at Parchman, they received nicknames that reflected personality traits and physical characteristics. For instance, a man named Johnny Lee Thomas was nicknamed "Have Mercy" when he protested a beating of a fellow inmate. Thomas stated that Parchman was, in the words of William Ferris, author of Give My Poor Heart Ease, "a world of fear in which only the strong and intelligent survive." Ferris added that "Like the trickster rabbit, the black prisoner had to move quicker and think faster than his white boss."
After the Gates decision, the number of murders of prisoners dropped overall. When integration came, prisoners formed gangs based on race to protect one another. In addition, the prison gangs gained the power that trustee shooters had held. In 1990, the prison emergency room treated 1,136 incidents of prisoner on employee assaults and 1,169 prisoner on prisoner assaults.
Cabana said "A life sentence in Parchman is an eternity." Prisoners may receive a Bachelor of Arts degree in Christian Ministry from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The Parchman Animal Care & Training (PACT) program, which was established in April 2008, organizes inmate care of livestock.
While living at MSP, many African-American inmates sang work chants, a tradition traced to West Africa. Work chants were used by farm laborers to pace their work. While inmates worked, a leader called the chant, with other inmates following him. One song includes a story of an inmate swimming through the Sunflower River to confuse bloodhounds, verses showcasing prisoners who return hoes to their commanding captain and refuse to continue working, and a story of a beautiful woman named Rosie who waits outside the prison boundary. William Ferris, author of Give My Poor Heart Ease, said that "for all of these inmates, music was a means to survive within the prison's grim world." The Mississippi Blues Trail added Parchman to its list of sites at 10 AM on Tuesday September 28, 2010; Parchman received the trail's 113th historical marker.
Reflecting on the significance of the singing he had heard in Parchman, Alan Lomax later wrote: "I had to face that here were the people that everyone else regarded as the dregs of society, dangerous human beings, brutalized and from them came the music which I thought was the finest thing I’d ever hear coming out of my country. They made Walt Whitman look like a child. They made Carl Sandburg, who sang these songs, look like a bloody amateur. These people were poetic and musical and they had something terribly important to say."
Historically Mississippi State Penitentiary permitted imprisoned men to engage in conjugal visits with wives; conjugal visits had to be with married opposite sex couples, and the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) did not include couples of common law marriages in its definition of marriage that makes a couple eligible for conjugal visits. MSP prisoners of "A" and "B" custody levels were permitted to engage in conjugal visits if they had no rule violation reports in the previous six months leading to each conjugal visit. As of September 27, 2012 MDOC ended family visitation for married prisoners and their immediate family members.
Formal records stating when conjugal visits began at MSP do not exist; Mississippi was the first state to allow for conjugal visits to occur in prisons. Columbus B. Hopper, author of "The Evolution of Conjugal Visiting in Mississippi," said "In all probability, conjugal visiting began as soon as Parchman Plantation was made into a prison in 1900" and that "I traced it back definitely as early as 1918." There was no state control or legal status for conjugal visits. Originally only African-American men were allowed to participate, as society believed that the sexual drives of black men were stronger than those of white men. Prison authorities believed that if black men were allowed to have sexual intercourse, they would be more productive in the farming industries in the prison. By the 1930s, the authorities had permitted white men to receive conjugal visits. Because the officials did not want pregnancies to occur, at that time they did not permit female prisoners to have conjugal visits. In the 1930s, on Sunday afternoons, prostitutes visited Parchman and visited the prison camps. Hopper said that a prisoner's song stated that a prostitute charged 50 cents for her services, "not a small amount during the Great Depression when many people worked a 12-hour day for a dollar."
Originally there were no designated facilities for conjugal visits. Some prisoners used tool sheds and storage areas in the camp areas, and others took their wives and girlfriends into the prisoner barracks and placed blankets over beds to allow for privacy. In 1940 prisoners began building special houses used by prisoners and their families during conjugal visits.
In 1962, Hopper, in the The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, said that the Mississippi State Penitentiary had the most liberal visitation program in the United States. Rules of visitation and leave, adopted in 1944, allowed inmates to make home visits for other reasons than emergency. According to a 1956 survey, it was the only correctional facility in the country to do so. Inmates were allowed to be visited every Sunday for two hours by their wives. In 1962 each Parchman camp, with the exception of the maximum security camps, housed a five to ten room structure called a red house; each house is near the main gate of the main camp building. In the house, the inmate and his wife may engage in sexual intercourse. Children are encouraged by the prison authorities to visit; as of 1962 one camp houses a play area for children. The Parchman conjugal visit program is designed so that all members of the family may interact with a particular prisoner. In 1962 the prison officials said that the conjugal visits were an important factor in preserving marriages of inmates and reducing prison homosexuality. During that year, most inmates reported favorable opinions about the conjugal program. David Oshinsky, author of Worse than Slavery, said that the statements regarding the preservation of marriages were "likely" to be correct and the statements regarding the prison sexuality were "probably" not true. Penologists stated that factors that may have contributed to the development of the system were the strength of family ties in rural areas, Parchman being, in the words of the Dictionary of American Penology, "primarily an agricultural plantation that is a self-contained, sociocultural system functioning much as a culture in and of itself", the emphasis placed on agricultural production, and the small sizes of the camps, since the guards in the camps knew the prisoners on personal bases. The dictionary said that because of the lack of records, it was not possible to tell if the conjugal visit program reduced prison sexuality or recidivism.
In the 1970s, Parchman still did not maintain records on the conjugal visits that occurred at the facility. In 1972 women at Parchman became eligible for conjugal visits. In 1974, prisoners of both sexes were permitted to to have three-day, two-night family visits. In the 1980s guards reported that inmates were more docile if they had periodic sexual access to their wives. Robert Cross of the Chicago Tribune reported in 1985 that the MSP program received relatively little attention compared to newer and more limited conjugal visit policies in California, Connecticut, New Mexico, New York, South Carolina, and Washington. Cross added that "The difference, perhaps, is that in Mississippi, where Parchman serves as the only penitentiary, nobody issued proclamations or opened up the matter for debate." As of 1996 a newly established Parchman unit used conjugal visits as a reward in a behavioral modification program. As of 1996, a typical married prisoner at Parchman has one conjugal visit every two weeks, and periodically uses the family visits.
David Oshinsky, a historian, said in 1996 "Throughout the American South, Parchman Farm is synonymous with punishment and brutality..." A character in William Faulkner's The Mansion referred to MSP as "destination doom." John Buntin of Governing magazine said that MSP "has long cast its shadow over the Mississippi Delta, including my hometown of Greenville, Mississippi."
The prison is the subject of a number of blues songs, most notably "Parchman Farm Blues" by Bukka White, and Mose Allison's "Parchman Farm", which was later covered by a number of other artists including John Mayall, Georgie Fame, Blue Cheer, and Blues Image.
In 1963, the Republican gubernatorial nominee Rubel Phillips made the penitentiary an issue in his unsuccessful campaign against the Democrat Paul B. Johnson, Jr. Phillips called the institution at Parchman "a disgrace" and urged the establishment of a constitutional board "free of politics to exercise responsible leadership." Phillips recounted the case of inmate Kimble Berry, who served time for manslaughter who was granted leave in 1961 by acting Governor Johnson (while Governor Ross Barnett was out of state) but showed up in a Cadillac in Massachusetts claiming that he had been authorized to recover burglary loot.
The prison also served as a major source of material for folklorists such as Alan and John Lomax, who visited numerous times to record work songs, field hollers, blues, and interviews with prisoners. The Lomaxes in part focused on Parchman at that time because it offered a particular closed society shut off from the outside world. John Lomax, accompanied by his wife Ruby, toured through the southern states recording blues work songs and other folk songs for the Library of Congress as part of a WPA project in 1939. They recorded work songs and chants while inmates were performing a group task, such as hoeing the fields at Parchman Farm as well as blues songs sung by inmate musicians.
The Coen brothers' film, Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, makes reference to Parchman, both directly and by including a song recorded at Parchman in 1959 by Alan Lomax on the soundtrack to the film.
In William Faulkner's book Old Man, which was also published as part of the book The Wild Palms, the Tall and Fat Convicts were sent from Parchman to rescue folks from the 1927 flood. In Faulkner's The Mansion, Mink Snopes was imprisoned in Parchman.
The theatrical play "The Parchman Hour", by playwright Mike Wiley, is based on the following quote:
Did you know that at Parchman, to pass the time and to keep our spirits up, we "invented" a radio program? I don’t recall that we named it, but "The Parchman Hour" would have been a good name. Each cell had to contribute a short “act” (singing a song, telling a joke, reading from the Bible—the only book we were allowed) and in between acts we had "commercials" for the products we lived with every day, like the prison soap, the black-and-white striped skirts, the awful food, etc. We did this every evening, as I recall; it gave us something to do during the day, thinking up our cell’s act for the evening.
- —Mimi Real, Freedom Rider, 1961
The play premiered professionally at PlayMakers Repertory Company in 2011; in 2013 the play was performed for the second time at the Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville, North Carolina, once again directed by Mike Wiley.
The Chamber, a best-selling novel by John Grisham, is set at Parchman. Many of Grisham's other novels make reference to the prison and in his book, Ford County, the short story "Fetching Raymond" takes place in large part at Parchman. The Chamber, the movie based on the novel, starring Gene Hackman and Chris O'Donnell, was filmed at the penitentiary.
The film Life, portraying a group of moonshiners from New York who are falsely convicted of murder and are given life sentences, takes place at Parchman. While it is set in Mississippi, filming occurred in California.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Mississippi State Penitentiary.|
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