Twelve people have died in Mississippi state prisons since the start of the new year. Nine deaths occurred in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. At least one was a suicide. Most were a result of violence between inmates: beatings, stabbings and other fatal altercations.
State officials have promised to stop the violence. After news of two of those deaths broke last week, Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican who took office earlier this month, said he would work “around the clock” with the state Department of Corrections to “respond immediately” and prevent new incidents “going forward.”
What’s striking about this situation is how little of it is new. The Parchman prison, which dates to 1904, has a long and infamous history of violence and abuse. It also has a history of reform. But no amount of change has been able to break the cycle of brutality. And why would it? The history of Parchman is a prime example of how dehumanization and neglect are intrinsic to separating people from their freedom.
The Mississippi of the late 19th century was a rigid apartheid state, its criminal justice system defined by cruel, gratuitous punishment. Black suspects bore the brunt of state violence. Often arrested for petty crimes like theft, gambling and “vagrancy” — traveling without a work permit or evidence of a job — black Mississippians were given hefty fines and lengthy sentences. They were then leased out to private companies for de facto slave labor on railroads and plantations. Conditions were abysmal.
“The prisoners ate and slept on bare ground, without blankets or mattresses, and often without clothes,” writes historian David Oshinsky in “Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.” “Convicts dropped from exhaustion, pneumonia, malaria, frostbite, consumption, sunstroke, dysentery, gunshot wounds, and ‘shackle poisoning’ (the constant rubbing of chains and leg irons against bare flesh).” In the 1880s, Oshinsky notes, the annual mortality rate for Mississippi’s convict population ranged from 9% to 16%.
Convict leasing was on the wane by the turn of the last century, but Mississippi’s white elite was still obsessed with “Negro crime.” Enter Gov. James K. Vardaman. Elected in 1903 on a demagogic platform of rural chauvinism and white supremacy — he promised to tax the planters, give aid to the (white) poor and turn back “social equality” — Vardaman was a kind of reformer.
He opposed convict leasing as a public giveaway to wealthy landowners and an oppressive burden on impoverished offenders, including blacks.
“Vardaman would spend a lifetime fighting to deny blacks political rights and social equality,” explains Oshinsky. “Yet he also believed that Negroes who accepted their lowly place in the human order should be protected from abuse.”
Vardaman wanted a prison that would socialize black criminals into, as Oshinsky paraphrases the idea, “proper discipline, strong work habits, and respect for white authority.” He also wanted it to turn a profit.
Under his leadership, the state cleared thousands of acres near the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta in an area called Parchman place, named after the family that had owned it for years. Workers planted crops and constructed prison buildings. The Parchman Penitentiary was born. By the 1910s it was self-sufficient, operating on the same principles as an antebellum plantation, with black convict laborers supervised by white overseers, although the share of white prisoners would increase with time.
Parchman would, in short order, become notorious for its hard labor and brutality. (Blues musician Bukka White immortalized his experience of the prison in a 1940 song, “Parchman Farm Blues.”) Inmates slept on dirt floors. Violence was common. In 1954 officials added a maximum security unit where one prisoner recalled, “They just beat the living crap out of you.” Serious reform would come after the civil rights movement with Gates v. Collier, a class-action lawsuit filed in 1971 on behalf of four inmates but constructed with testimony from hundreds of prisoners. They attested to murders, rapes, beatings and tortures; one inmate, Danny Bennett, died after he was shocked with cattle prods and left unconscious under the sun in 100-degree heat. They also spoke to poor conditions, from open sewage and polluted water supplies to “kitchens overrun with insects, rodents, and the stench of decay.” A federal judge would describe the prison as “unfit for human habitation.”
Decided for good in 1974, Gates would essentially create minimum standards for incarceration in the United States. At Parchman, this meant desegregation and civilian guards, freedom of worship, minimum living space and an end to forced labor. It also spurred the state of Mississippi to create a Department of Corrections to oversee its penal facilities.
But reform had limits. New facilities and professional staff don’t change the fact that prisons are a place of confinement, where society isolates many of its least wanted and most vulnerable members. By the 1990s, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, death row prisoners at Parchman — renamed Mississippi State Penitentiary — reported “profound isolation, unrelieved idleness and monotony, denial of exercise, intolerable stench and pervasive filth, grossly malfunctioning plumbing, and constant exposure to human excrement.”
HIV-positive prisoners in the general population told lawyers from the ACLU that they “were living in squalor, categorically segregated from the rest of the prison population, and barred from all prison educational and vocational programs and jobs.” Assaults between inmates, often part of rival gangs, remained common.
Parchman is hardly alone in its history of violence and neglect. If anything, it’s just an extreme example of conditions that occur throughout American prisons. Even so, there’s worse. Last year, the Department of Justice released a 56-page report on the Alabama prison system, where guards are few and far between and where prisoners experience high rates of homicide and sexual assault, where — The New York Times reported — “one prisoner had been dead for so long that when he was discovered lying face down, his face was flattened.” The nation’s jails — local facilities where arrestees are placed pending trial or sentencing — aren’t much better. According to the most recent data, a 2015 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1,053 people died in local jails in 2014. The leading cause, suicide, accounted for 35% of those deaths.
Change, for Parchman and other facilities, will almost certainly come. We should understand, however, that reform is only ever temporary. There’s only so much you can do within the paradigm of incarceration. A prison may or may not be humane, but it will always be dehumanizing. The isolation, the lack of liberty — the separation from family and community — are antithetical to human life. In which case, the only way to “fix” a problem like the American prison system is to end it. But for an unequal, racially stratified country like ours, that destination is on the far horizon, if it’s on the horizon at all.
Jamelle Bouie is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.