- Mississippi State Penitentiary
Parchman — Unincorporated community — Mississippi State Penitentiary Coordinates: Coordinates: Country United States State Mississippi County Sunflower Elevation 144 ft (44 m) Time zone Central (CST) (UTC-6) – Summer (DST) CDT (UTC-5) ZIP codes 38738 Area code(s) 662 FIPS code GNIS feature ID 675442 Website mdoc.state.ms.us
The Mississippi Department of Corrections facility is located on about 18,000 acres (7,300 ha) in unincorporated Sunflower County, and was established in 1901. It is located 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. Parchman is not designated to house female offenders - Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, also the location of the female death row, is the only state prison in Mississippi designated as a place for female prisoners.
- 1 History
- 2 Location and composition
- 3 Demographics
- 4 Prisoner life
- 5 In popular culture
- 6 Quotation
- 7 Notable inmates
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 Footnotes
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
After December 31, 1894, prisoners sentenced by the State of Mississippi could no longer be hired or leased by third parties. After the convict leasing system ended, the State of Mississippi began to acquire property to build its own correctional facilities. In 1900 the Mississippi State Legislature appropriated US$80,000 for the purchase of the Parchman Plantation, a 3,789-acre (1,533 ha) property in Sunflower County. What is now the prison property was located at a railroad spur called "Gordon Station."
The Government of Mississippi purchased land in Sunflower County with the intent of establishing a prison there in January 1901. In 1901 four stockades were constructed, and the state moved prisoners to begin clearing land for crop cultivation. The land was undeveloped Mississippi Delta forest. The prison was nicknamed "Parchman" after Warden J. M. "Jim" Parchman. Around the time of MSP's opening, Sunflower County residents objected to having executions performed at MSP because they feared that Sunflower County would be stigmatized as a "death county." Therefore the State of Mississippi originally performed executions of condemned criminals in their counties of conviction.
The Mississippi Department of Archives and History said 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." In the fiscal year 1905, Parchman's first year of operations, the State of Mississippi earned $185,000 (over $4.6 million in 2009 dollars) from Parchman's operations.
Originally Parchman was one of two prisons designated for young, black men, with the other prisons housing other racial and gender groups. In 1908 a tornado struck Camp 1, causing no injuries and $10,000 in damages.
In 1909 the State of Mississippi acquired 2,000 acres (810 ha) adjacent to the MSP territory, resulting in MDOC having 15,789 acres (6,390 ha) 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, with Parchman being the main prison. 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. 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 1917 12 male camps and one female camp were established, and racial segregation was of the institution's highest priorities. The institution became the main hub of activity for Mississippi's prison system.
In 1937 the prison had 1,989 inmates.
Around the 1950s residents of Sunflower County were still opposed to the concept of housing the 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, a gas chamber serving as an execution chamber was installed at MSP. The gas chamber replaced an electric chair which, between 1940 and February 5, 1952, had been moved from county to county to execute condemned prisoners. The first person to die in the gas chamber was Gearald A. Gallego, who was executed on March 3, 1955.
Parchman Farm and the freedom riders
In the spring of 1961, Freedom Riders (civil rights activists) went to the American South to test the desegregation of public facilities. By the end of June, 163 Freedom Riders had been convicted in Jackson and many were jailed in Parchman. On June 15, 1961 the first set of Freedom Riders were sent from Hinds County Prison to Parchman. The first group sent to the farm were 45 male Freedom Riders, 29 blacks accompanied by 16 whites.
The prison authorities forced the freedom riders to remove their clothing and undergo strip searches. After the strip searches, a man named 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 taken to the cells and given clothing they were made sure to be kept as uncomfortable as possible. The Freedom Riders were given clothing that did not fit. Along with that, they were not allowed items such as pencils and paper. David Fankhauser, a Freedom Rider at Parchman Farm, was quoted saying, “In our cells, we were given a bible, an aluminum cup and a tooth brush. The cell measured 6 x 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. “. The food was less than desirable as well. Frankhauser said, ": 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." .
As time wore on the Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, visited the farm a few times. He would give various instructions to the guards to, "break their spirit, not their bones". The Governor took precautionary actions with the Freedom Riders. He made sure they were away from all other inmates and were kept 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. Singing was reintroduced, a tactic used in previous jailing situations.
The prisoners sang various songs to irritate Tyson and the other guards. Tyson attempted many types of tactics to stop the singing. They took their mattresses and bug screens to attempt to get the prisoners to stop singing. The guards then took the extreme action of flooding the cells and blowing large fans into the cells creating a draft and freezing temperatures for the Freedom Riders. After they realized these harsh methods were not working they attempted to barter with the Freedom Riders. The warden then apologized to the riders, emotionally wrecked he returned all the belongings that had been taken. The mattresses and screens were returned in an attempt for less singing. This was already a victory for the Freedom Riders.
As the 45 Riders were fighting the battle in the cells many others were coming down to join the men. Winnoh Myers was a woman accompanied by others who took the ride down south and eventually got jailed. She was witness to the treatment first hand. The only main difference was she was a woman being treated just as the men were. She was given bad living quarters and even worse clothing and meals. Most of the Freedom Riders were bailed out after a little over a month. She was the last Freedom Rider left in Parchman Farm. She got visits just due to the fact that she was a Freedom Rider. The Freedom Riders gained credibility in the Civil Rights Movement after undergoing the conditions in Parchman.
Post Freedom Ride
In 1970 the civil rights lawyer Roy Haber began taking statements from inmates, which eventually ran to fifty pages detailing murders, rapes, beatings and other abuses suffered by the inmates 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, 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 trusty 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 Governor of Mississippi William L. Waller organized a blue-ribbon committee to study MSP. The committee decided that the state should abandon MSP's profit farming system and hire a professional penologist to head the prison.
The 1987 BBC Television landmark documentary Fourteen Days in May, which followed the last two weeks of the life of Edward Earl Johnson up until just a few minutes before his execution in the prison's gas chamber, was filmed here.
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 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 CMCF.
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 in 2002.
On Monday 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 is located in Unit 29; previously he was in Unit 32.
In 2005 Tim Climer, the executive director of the Sunflower County Economic Development District, stated that he wanted to develop MSP into 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 through the installation of a managed access system to prevent the authentication and operation of contraband wireless devices within the prison grounds. Other prisoners, visitors and guards smuggle telephones 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, the company which designed and developed the Intelligent Network Access Controller or iNAC managed access technology, to install the system with no incurred cost to the prison or the state of Mississippi. The managed access system renders unauthorized devices useless within the prison, without the need to locate or confiscate the devices, but at the same time permits authorized devices to operate unimpeded. The technology does not encounter the legal impediments facing competing cell detection and cell jamming technologies, and has the added benefit of being able to ensure that all emergency 911 calls are permitted to complete, regardless of source. Christopher Epps, Commissioner of MDOC, publicly unveiled the system on September 8, 2010, and identified managed access as a model for other prisons to follow around the country to address the issue of contraband cell phones. Due to the installation of the system, between August 6, 2010 and September 9, 2010, over 216,320 texts and calls were blocked.
Location and composition
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 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.
Inmate housing units
- Unit 25
- In the mid-2000s Unit 25 had the Pre-Release/Job Assistance Alcohol and Drug Therapeutic Community After Care Program, which had 48 beds. The program was for offenders who are about to be released from prison.
- Unit 26
- Units 26, 27, and 28, which in total have a capacity of 388 people, together had a price tag of $3,450,000.
- Unit 29
- Unit 29, a 16-building medium security complex, opened in 1980 and designed by Dale and Associates. Unit 29 houses all male death row inmates in MDOC.
- The building, which was under construction in the 1970s and originally had a capacity of 1,456, had a construction cost of $22,045,000. In 2000 a prisoner riot occurred at Unit 29, leading to some injuries. Renovations occurred in 1998, including the conversion of dormitory units into cell units. Unit 29 is the primary farming support unit of MSP. It has 1,561 beds, which house minimum, medium, and close custody inmates. The unit is the prison's largest in terms of prisoner capacity. In the mid-1990s Unit 29 was the main maximum security camp for the population. Most inmates started their stays in Unit 29, and almost every prisoner went through the unit. Renovations of Unit 29 in the financial year of 2000 added about 240 beds. By 2001 MDOC built a kitchen and had converted half of Unit 29's open bay dormitories to individual cells; together the changed had a price tag of $21,760,284 of U.S. Department of Justice grant money. Unit 29-A houses the A&D Treatment Program for Special Needs program, which is for prisoners with HIV/AIDS who are more than 6 months and within 30 months of their release dates.
- Unit 30
- Unit 30 is the education and drug treatment facility. It was designed by Dale and Associates. Unit 30, a part of the Alcohol and Drug Therapeutic Community Treatment Centers (ADTC-TC), has 480 beds. Unit 30 has two housing buildings, A and B, and each building has two housing zones, A and B. Each zone houses 108 prisoners. Previously each zone housed 120 prisoners.
- Unit 31
- Unit 42
- Unit 42, the prison hospital, has 54 beds. In terms of capacity it is the smallest residential unit. The prison hospital serves female inmates throughout the MDOC system. In December 2009 MDOC opened the Compassionate and Palliative Care Unit, a hospice for dying prisoners, in the hospital.
- Unit 4
- Unit 10
- Units 10, 12, and 20, which together housed 300 people, together had a total cost of $1,000,000.
- Unit 12
- Unit 12 had the pre-release operations.
- Unit 15, Building B
- Unit 16
- The unit, with a capacity of 68 people, was built in the 1970s for $3,000,000.
- Unit 17
- Unit 17 houses the execution chamber for condemned inmates. A condemned prisoner is transferred to a holding cell next to the death chamber 48 hours before the scheduled time of his or her execution. Cell NO. 14 is used to house inmates prior to execution. The execution chamber is a 10-foot (3.0 m) by 15-foot (4.6 m) room.
- Unit 17's prisoner housing was closed on October 25, 2004. At one time the 56-bed Unit 17 housed the prison's death row.
- Unit 20
- Fire House
- Unit 22
- Units 22 and 23 and the prison hospital, which in total have a capacity of 324 people, together had a price tag of $1,850,000.
- Unit 23
- Unit 24
- The unit, with a capacity of 192 people, was built in the 1970s for $2,250,000. Unit 24E and Unit 25 in total had a capacity of 352 people, and they had a total cost of $1,750,000. The total construction cost of all of Unit 24, constructed in 1975, is $3.6 million. The unit had 192 single cell medium security beds. The facility has two stories and three housing zones, each having 64 beds. Zones A and B housed special needs prisoners who were receiving mental health care. Zone C had general population A and B security level prisoners.
- Unit 27
- In the 1990s Unit 27 was the protective custody facility. Richard Rubin, author of Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South, noticed that most of the prisoners in Unit 27 were White, while overall in MSP most prisoners were Black.
- Unit 28
- In the mid-2000s Unit 28 was the facility for the A&D Treatment Program for Special Needs program, which is for prisoners with HIV/AIDS who are more than 7 months and within 30 months of their release dates. The program began as a therapeutic community in April 2002; previously the program was a 12 week program. Historically Unit 28 was the housing where HIV positive offenders were segregated into. In 2010 the MDOC Commissioner, Christopher B. "Chris" Epps, said that MDOC, beginning in May, would no longer segregate HIV offenders. By August 2010 Unit 28, which had 192 beds, closed.
- Unit 32
- Unit 32, a 34.8-acre (14.1 ha) prison unit, was the designated unit of housing for maximum security and death row convicts., and Unit 32 served as MSP's lockdown unit. Unit 32, designed by Dale and Associates, has "Supermax" cells.
- The U32 housing facility has five two story housing facilities, a recreation building, and external structures such as gun towers. Each housing building has 200 cells and 82 square feet (7.6 m2) of living space. Each housing building was made of precast concrete, and 6,700 cubic yards of concrete and 500,000 pounds (230,000 kg) of reinforcing steel were used to build each housing building. Building A (Alpha Building) served as the maximum security area. Building B (Bravo Building) also housed closed custody prisoners. Building C (Charlie Building) served as death row. Unit 32 was intended to reduce maintenance necessities by using durable structure and equipment and to allow prison administrators to establish a high level of control over U32's residents. The 18.8-acre (7.6 ha) Unit 32 Support Facility houses administrative offices, a canteen, medical services, a library, and a visitation area. With Unit 32 closed, Parchman has about 1,000 empty spaces for prisoners. MDOC has continued to maintain Unit 32 so the state can house contract prisoners there.
- The $41 million unit opened in August 1990, increasing MSP's maximum security bed space by over 15 percent; during that year Mississippi officials said that the prison needed more maximum security space after Unit 32's opening. Prior to Unit 32's opening, MSP had 56 "lockdown" cells for difficult prisoners. By 2003 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of six inmates, alleging poor conditions in Unit 32's death row. In 2007 three inmates in Unit 32 were murdered by other inmates in a several month span. During that year a guard at Unit 32 said that under-staffing contributed to the security lapses. In 2010 MDOC and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reached an agreement to close Unit 32 and transfer prisoners to other areas. Mentally ill prisoners in the unit will be transferred to the East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Meridian, Mississippi.
"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 warden 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.
Residents are zoned to the Drew School District, and children who live on the grounds of MSP attend 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. 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 warden'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.
History of composition
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. 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 of MSP property had a large size and a remote location.
Each camp had 15,000 acres (6,100 ha) of land assigned to it. 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. Taylor and Fletcher said that the other camps "amounted to little more than wooden barracks surrounded by cultivated 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 vs. 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 Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year 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 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 warden 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.
Throughout its history, Parchman Farm had a reputation of being one of the toughest prisons in the United States. This reputation antedated the 1960s arrival of the Freedom Riders.
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 trusty guard system often produced "disastrous results." Cabana said that the trusty system "apparently worked quite well, as there were seldom any disciplinary problems among the shooters." Because trusties 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 quickly 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 trusty 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.
- Ask my cap’n, how could he stand to see me cry
- He said you low down nigger, I can stand to see you die
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."
Mississippi State Penitentiary permits imprisoned men to engage in conjugal visits with wives; conjugal visits must be with married opposite sex couples, and the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) does 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 are permitted to engage in conjugal visits if they have no rule violation reports in the previous six months leading to each conjugal visit.
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. The practice began on an unofficial level around 1918. There was no state control or legal status. 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 1940 prisoners began building special houses used by prisoners and their families during conjugal visits.
In 1962, Columbus B. Hopper of 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.
In popular culture
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 (song)", which was later covered by a number of other artists including John Mayall, Georgie Fame and Blue Cheer.
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 Parchman Hour The play premiers professionally at PlayMakers Repertory Company in 2011.
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, staring 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.
- Oh listen you men, I don't mean no harm
- If you wanna do good, you better stay off old Parchman Farm
- We got to work in the mornin', just at dawn of day
- Just at the settin' of the sun, that's when the work is done
- Bukka White, "Parchman Farm Blues"
- Samuel H. Bowers (Died in the hospital unit)
- Stokely Carmichael
- James Farmer
- Eddie James House (Son House)
- Edgar Ray Killen (Unit 31)
- John Lewis
- Vernon Presley, father of Elvis Presley
- Booker T. Washington White (Bukka White)
- Luke Woodham, perpetrator of the Pearl High School shooting (Unit 29)
- Hopper, Columbus B. (September 1962). "The Conjugal Visit at Mississippi State Penitentiary". The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science (Northwestern University) 53 (3): 340–343. doi:10.2307/1141470. JSTOR 1141470.
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External images Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman) Photo Collections - Mississippi Department of Archives and History Death Row Photos - Mississippi Department of Corrections
- Mississippi State Penitentiary The second entry refers to the Mississippi State Penitentiary and lists its statistics as well as programs.
- "Digital Collections: Alan Lomax." University of Mississippi.
- "Parchman Farm." Mississippi Blues Trail
- History of capital punishment in Mississippi including pictures of how capital punishment took and takes place; it also lists references.
- Winter, Margaret and Stephen F. Hanlon. "Parchman Farm Blues: Pushing for Prison Reforms at Mississippi State Penitentiary." American Civil Liberties Union.
- Chain gang songs from Parchman Farm
- Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice
- "Penitentiary Farm Pays and Makes Money - The New York Times
- "The Conjugal Visit at Mississippi State Penitentiary." JSTOR
- "Worse Than Slavery." The Washington Post
Mississippi Department of Corrections prisons State prisonsCentral Mississippi♂♀ | Mississippi (Parchman) | South Mississippi Private prisonsDelta | East Mississippi | Marshall County | Tallahatchie County | Walnut Grove Youth | Wilkinson CountyAbove facilities are male-only unless noted by ♂♀ (both sexes) Municipalities and communities of Sunflower County, Mississippi Cities Towns Unincorporated
Cottondale | Inwood
‡This populated place also has portions in an adjacent county or counties
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