On Parchman Prison: Why Reform is Not an Option

Design by Sophia Muys

CW: This article discusses the violent history of Parchman prison as well as the current human rights violations that are occurring. There is mention of violence against Black people and death. 

Mississippi State Penitentiary, better known as Parchman Prison, appears to be reaching a boiling point after a long history of carceral violence. Since the start of the year, 16 people have died in Parchman Prison. On January 27, 2020, the Republican governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, called for Unit 29 of the facility to be shut down due to the deteriorating infrastructure and health hazards within the cell block. 375 of the individuals that were housed in Unit 29 have been transferred to the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, which is a private prison. However, there are still several hundreds of incarcerated people detained in Unit 29 due to lack of space and resources to house them elsewhere. In the wake of more death and violence, public outrage and media coverage have resulted in pressure for a petition to “Shutdown Parchman Prison in Parchman Mississippi” started on Change.org. This petition has been signed by over 59,000 people. 

As more evidence detailing Parchman’s inhumane conditions surfaces, the potential for a total prison shutdown is on the horizon. There lies a conflict within this, however, as shutting down this facility is not a simple solution. The events in Parchman have potential to set a precedent for new regulations and reforms for prisons. This presents the opportunity for a conversation to begin on retroactive amelioration for people who have experienced undue levels of trauma while serving their prison sentence. To reform a prison like Parchman is to disregard the history of racialized violence and current injustices that are occurring. The only response that takes into account all the trauma that has been incurred is one based on abolition and harm reduction. This is why the state of Mississippi must invest in alternative methods of criminal punishment rather than mending a failing system. 

Parchman Prison is the oldest prison in the state of Mississippi. Located in the North-Western region of the state, it is the only maximum-security facility for men in the states but serves as a minimum- and medium-security facility in other sections of the prison. Parchman is unique in its history as it essentially began as a plantation in the early 1900s in response to the abolition of convict leasing programs in 1894. 

Convict leasing was an extremely lucrative business for states, prisons and private corporations that was popularized in 1865 after the end of the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Men serving sentences were mandated to perform manual labor which involved tasks ranging from growing cotton and other cash crops, building railroads, tending to livestock and extracting turpentine gum from pine trees. People who failed to comply were brutally punished, and in some rare cases, beaten to death. This practice disproportionately affected Black men as they were at the mercy of racist police, judges and juries. Arrests made for criminal acts such as vagrancy (homelessness) targeted and entrapped Black men and some women who had just recently gained their freedom. As the incarcerated population rapidly grew in Mississippi, the state and prisons continued to amass profits from the labor of incarcerated men. 

Overcriminalization of Black people has continued in states like Mississippi even after convict leasing was abolished, and Parchman still functions like a prison farm. Currently, men on the inside grow and harvest enough food to feed over 12,000 people in the three main prisons and community work centers of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC). Prisons in Mississippi will continue to rely on uncompensated, compulsory labor from incarcerated people as long as reform is the only goal. Past reforms have only resulted in marginal revisions to this system of structural violence. Uprooting and abolishing the entire framework of imprisonment is the only guarantee that the future does not continue to reproduce the violence of the past. 

Now, MDOC looks to alternative options for housing the individuals affected by the conditions in Unit 29. Gov. Reeves has negotiated with Tallahatchie prison officials to temporarily house the transferred individuals for $65 per day per individual. This decision can be understood as just another iteration of Parchman’s history; people serving their sentences are once again minimized to the dollar amount that they are worth to the state of Mississippi with little regard for the well-being and justice they deserve. Lack of transparency regarding the contract between MDOC and Tallahatchie adds to the concern as it is unclear how much money the MDOC plans to spend. 

Generally speaking, private prisons have earned a bad reputation for cutting corners and maximizing profits. Historically, prisons have attempted to save money by hiring fewer correctional officers and failing to keep facilities properly maintained. Facilities that have underpaid and overworked correctional officers tend to have higher rates of assault and abuse amongst incarcerated populations. Additionally, private prisons are also known for exploiting incarcerated people by requiring them to do the labor without fair compensation. Consequently, the transaction between MDOC and Tallahatchie leaves the people incarcerated in these prisons vulnerable to more violence, exploitation and inhumane conditions. 

Although a contract exists between MDOC and Tallahatchie prison, there is still a lack of clarity as to what will happen to the remaining people in Unit 29. Prison closures in other states shed light on the harmful consequences of reform-based legislation. For instance, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has closed 17 prisons in New York since his appointment in 2011. New York’s prison population is steadily decreasing due to criminal justice reforms implemented by Gov. Cuomo. These reforms include a proposed bill that would make people over the age of 55 immediately eligible for parole if they have served at least 15 years of their sentence. Another bill would work to protect minors from being interrogated by the police. These reforms are instrumental in continuing to decrease incarceration in New York. While the decreased number of incarcerated people is a positive change, there is still tension that exists. 

People who remain incarcerated in New York are often transferred further away from their homes and families when a prison is shut down because New York lacks the infrastructure for alternatives such as adequate communal homes. Furthermore, as state facilities close in New York, private facilities take on the remaining people. Whereas, in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has put a ban on beginning any new contracts with private prisons. Additionally, Gov. Newsom has set 2028 as the deadline for a total ban on all private prisons in the state. Currently, about half of all US states utilize the private prison industry to house and manage incarcerated people. Mississippi has between ten and twenty percent of its incarcerated population housed in private prisons. For comparison, California, which has nearly four times the incarcerated population of Mississippi, only houses between 0.1 to10 percent of its population in private prisons. 

Although California is making efforts to end the practice of prison privatization, people who are incarcerated are still subject to being transferred away from their homes and families. The approaches in New York and California, while well-intentioned, fail to address all the levels of harm that come with carcerality. This only reinforces the importance of retroactive amelioration for the people who have been incarcerated in Mississippi. 

Retroactive amelioration is a concept that people have discussed in relation to prison many times. In Blanket Retroactive Amelioration: A Remedy for Disproportionate Punishments, S. David Mitchell makes an argument for including justice and mercy in the decision-making process for incarcerated people, rather than adhering to a legal system for the sake of it. There has also been extensive research on alternatives to imprisonment, including communal homes, rehabilitation centers, fines or home confinement. In the case of Parchman, the people incarcerated could be considered for early release, probation or finishing the rest of their sentences out within communal homes or under house arrest. These alternatives address more of the harmful aspects of incarceration by allowing offenders to engage with their communities through a restorative justice framework. Studies have shown that incarceration and isolation from society does not actually decrease crime rates. There is also evidence that shows people who are incarcerated for long sentences are likely to commit crimes again due to the difficulties they face when reentering society. If Mississippi lawmakers were to implement restorative alternatives to imprisonment, the incarcerated people who have suffered in Parchman would be protected against more structural and actual violence. There is potential to recenter communities and healing over punishment though retroactive amelioration. 

Currently, there is work being done at UCLA in relation to Parchman and prison abolition. The Carceral Ecologies Lab, headed by Nicholas Shapiro under the Institute of Society and Genetics is dedicated to fighting for justice for the people incarcerated in Parchman Prison. Carceral Ecologies, in partnership with UCLA’s Undergraduate Scholars Initiative, participated in a letter-writing campaign to show solidarity and support to all people incarcerated in the state of Mississippi. Kelly Salinas and Savannah Ramirez are both students who have been instrumental in researching and uncovering what is occurring in Parchman now. 

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