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“Who’s Responsible For What’s Happening at Parchman?": A Historical Analysis of Mississippi’s Prisons

Since the last week of 2019, five inmates have been killed at Mississippi prisons. Three of these murders occurred at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, commonly known as Parchman. Adding to these murders, two Parchman inmates escaped from the facility due to crumbling infrastructure and faulty security. With the help of outside sources, inmates managed to smuggle cellphones into the prison and capture footage of backed-up sewage, wet floors, over-populated cells, wafer-thin mattresses were strewn across the floor, and uncontrolled violence.[1] They then texted the photos and videos to Mississippians outside of Parchman. 

A member of the press asked then-Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant who is responsible for the situation at Parchman. Bryant, a former deputy sheriff, said he blamed the inmates, elaborating “I don’t associate victimhood with them,” Bryant, a former deputy sheriff, said.[2] As much as Bryant wants to pass off these events on inmates, this is not the first time similar events have occurred at Parchman and within the Mississippi Department of Corrections during his two terms as governor. Furthermore, the Mississippi State Hospital, colloquially known as Whitfield, and the Mississippi Department of Mental Health have also had their share instances of overpopulation and negligence.

Conditions at Parchman have been well chronicled by those incarcerated there during the African-American Civil Rights Movement. In 1961, more than 300 Freedom Riders became inmates at the prison. They were arrested by order of Governor Ross Barnett upon entering Jackson, Mississippi on integrated buses challenging the South’s refusal to acknowledge the United States Supreme Court’s decision deeming segregated public buses unconstitutional. While there, guards placed them among death-row inmates and supplied them with little to no basic provisions. When the riders refused to cease singing protest songs, guards took their bedding and any provisions. During a civil-rights protest at Mississippi Valley State University in 1970, police officers arrested the participants and sent them to Parchman for a long weekend.[3] Protest participant Willie Johnson explained upon release from Parchman, the staff refused to return their belongings, which had been taken upon arrival. “All our property, everything we had on us, we never got back. I had a class ring, a watch, some money, and a necklace.”[4]

Whitfield has also had its history of issues akin to those in Parchman in recent weeks. Immediately after the Second World War, during Governor Fielding L. Wright’s term as governor, appalling conditions and events taking place there came to light due to editorials by Delta Democrat Times’s Editor and Owner Hodding Carter, Jr., and State Representative Hayden Campbell’s independent investigation of the institution. Much like the Parchman inmates who have used cellphones to captured footage of conditions, James Chaney, a patient at Whitfield in the 1940s wrote and clandestinely smuggled letters to members of the press and politicians. Only Carter acknowledged his detailed letters about the state hospital. Carter would then pass along these letters in his editorials. He wrote about low wages and long hours with the “continuous coming and going of new and strange faces among the attendants and other workers.”[5]  Simultaneously, Representative Campbell, from an employee’s tip, extemporarily visited the hospital on number occasions and saw nothing short of “a snake pit.”[6] He witnessed employees stealing from delivery trucks, patients sleeping in the hallways, a “goon squad” that “beat people to death, and a 12-year-old boy in the male disturbed ward being “used morally wrong in every imaginable way.”[7] Also learned of doctors sexually harassing female patients, on-the-job drunkenness, and staff members allowing patients to fight one another.[8]

In the last decade-plus, the situation for Mississippi’s mentally ill and prisoners has deteriorated from bad to worse. From 2009 to 2011, support for mental health care fell by $42 million or 15 percent of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health’s total budget.[9] Due to these budget cuts, available beds for patients at the state’s state hospitals declined from 1,156 in 2010 to 486 in 2017.[10] The Department of Justice investigated Mississippi’s mental health care system in December of 2011, which revealed the veracity of the state’s plan for its mentally ill residents. That plan is to continue to institutionalize Mississippians while cutting funding for mental health care. The DOJ found Mississippi had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act “by over-institutionalizing adults with mental illness” and “relying on models that would barely have been considered modern 50 years ago.”[11] The department concluded Mississippi proportionately spent more money on institutions and less on community care than any other state in the nation.[12] Ultimately, this reality means more Mississippians with mental illness fall through the cracks and end up homeless, in prison, or dead. 

This is not the first-time poor conditions and violence in the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ prisons have come to light during Bryant’s terms as governor. In 2014, Bryant endorsed and signed House Bill 585, a law championed by the political left and right throughout Mississippi that pledged to release non-violent inmates, specifically those serving time for drug charges, in the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ system.[13] The legislation pledged some of the money saved due to the reduced inmate population to programs for drug offenders.[14] However, this did not occur. These savings have been used by the state to offset the state government’s large corporate tax cuts during Bryant’s first term as governor.[15]

The following year, inmates at the privately-run East Mississippi Correctional Facility filed a class-action lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections for inadequate “food, shelter, medical and mental health care, and safety” from fellow inmates and guards. The suit detailed “unreasonable harm from other inmates and from prison staff who routinely use excessive force.”[16] Furthermore, the inmates claim guards arranged prison fights and ignored distress signals like fires.[17] As recent as two years ago, the Mississippi Department of Corrections has experienced a rash of deaths due to a lack of healthcare. During the same month then-Governor Phil Bryant touted Mississippi’s achievements to President Donald Trump, 16 inmates in prisons across the state died due to the lack of health care, which was an unusual spike in deaths from the prior month.[18] Bryant’s administration is not alone in his administration’s disregard for those under the supervision of state-run institutions. Mississippi, which has been historically fiscally conservative, has a long history of underfunding, under supporting, and over-utilizing its state-run institutions.

According to numerous Mississippi lawmakers, many of the state’s budget decisions were made by Governor Phil Bryant, Lieutenant-Governor Tate Reeves, and Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives Philip Gunn, all members of the Republican Party.[19] These recent events at Parchman have a long historical tradition in Mississippi state-run institutions and are linked to underfunding and lack of support by the state government. In a state historically controlled by fiscal conservatives, regardless of party, this continues to be the situation with no end or serious solution in sight.

[1] Rick Rojas, “Please Try to Help Us’: Conversing With Mississippi Inmates on a Contraband Phone,” The New York Times (New York), January 16, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/16/us/mississippi-prison-cellphones.html. Accessed January 16, 2020.

[2] Emily Wagster Pettus, “Bryant: Mississippi improved in 8 years of governorship,” Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), January 10, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/bryant-mississippi-improved-in-8-years-of-governorship/2020/01/10/e70bbbd6-33dd-11ea-971b-43bec3ff9860_story.html?outputType=amp Accessed January 9, 2020.

[3] ‘A Shaky Truce: Starkville Civil Rights Struggles, 1960-1980. http://starkvillecivilrights.msstate.edu//ohms-viewer/viewer.php?cachefile=Willie_Johnson.xml#segment337. Accessed January 17, 2020.

[4] ‘A Shaky Truce: Starkville Civil Rights Struggles, 1960-1980. http://starkvillecivilrights.msstate.edu//ohms-viewer/viewer.php?cachefile=Willie_Johnson.xml#segment337. Accessed January 17, 2020.

[5] Fred Chaney to Walter Sillers, et al, November 2, 1946, Carter (Hodding and Betty) Papers, Box 2, Folder: 2-27. Special Collections Department, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University. 

[6] Hayden Campbell, interview by John Alexander, June 10, 1976, interview transcript, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, MS. State Representative’s description of the Mississippi State Hospital as “a snake pit” dates back to his initial encounter with Dan Dawson in 1947. During this encounter, Dawson referred to the state hospital as “a snake pit.” 

[7] Hayden Campbell, interview by John Alexander, June 10, 1976, interview transcript, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, MS.

[8] State Representative Hayden Campbell Private Investigation, August-September, 1949. Carter (Hodding and Betty) Papers, Box 3, Folder: 3-32. Special Collections Department, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University.

[9] Sarah Smith, “Doing Less with Less: Mental Health Care in Mississippi,” ProPublica, December 28, 2017, February 13, 2018, https://features.propublica.org/tyler-haire-mississippi/mental-health-care-in-mississippi/. Accessed January 10, 2020.

[10] Smith, “Doing Less with Less: Mental Health Care in Mississippi.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Jerry Mitchell, “Trump Hailed This State’s Prison Reforms as a National Model-but the Numbers Reflect a Grim Reality,” ProPublica, May 9, 2019. https://www.propublica.org/article/trump-hailed-mississippi-prison-reforms-national-model-but-the-numbers-reflect-grim-reality. Accessed January 11, 2020.

[14] Mitchell, “Trump Hailed This State’s Prison Reforms as a National Model-but the Numbers Reflect a Grim Reality,” 

[15] Ibid.

[16] Timothy Williams, “Judge Allows Class-Action Suit Over Mississippi Prison Conditions,” The New York Times (Washington, D.C.), October 1, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/02/us/judge-allows-class-action-suit-over-mississippi-prison-conditions.html. Accessed January 10, 2020.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Michelle Liu, “SPLC to Gov. Bryant: Prison conditions unacceptable and inhumane.” Mississippi Today, September 13, 2018. https://mississippitoday.org/2018/09/13/splc-letter-to-governor-mississippi-prison-conditions-unacceptable-and-inhumane/. Accessed January 10, 2020.

[19] Smith, “Doing Less with Less: Mental Health Care in Mississippi.”