Parchman Prison
Female prisoners sewing in Parchman Penitentiary, 1930s (Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Archives and Records Services Division [#PI/PEN/P37.4 - 67])

Parchman Prison

Officially known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman Prison is one of three state prisons administered by the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Located in rural Sunflower County, it is the oldest and largest of the state’s adult penal institutions, consisting of some eighteen thousand acres of bottomland in the Yazoo Delta on which are situated eighteen housing units with a bed capacity of 5,768. Staffed by more than 1,700 employees, the penitentiary incarcerates felons of all security classifications, including males under sentence of death, and is the site at which the State of Mississippi carries out capital punishment.

With the exception of its vast acreage, far-flung physical plant, and token tribute to the ideal of penal farming, Parchman is nowadays unremarkable among American prisons, reflecting the homogenized “justice model” of criminal corrections the federal judiciary imposed during the 1970–80s. The Mississippi State Penitentiary, in fact, was the target of one such important ruling. In 1972 the US District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi found in Gates v. Collier that the institution was in violation of the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. In the words of the presiding judge, subsequent judicial oversight transformed it from “a very backward, shabby, trusty-run plantation, to a modern operation.”

The prison today consists of grim structures surrounded by razor wire rising ominously from the flatlands. There are few reminders of when the institution’s land was cultivated for cotton, when convicts “under the gun” dragged their burlap sacks along the sweltering floor of the Yazoo Delta, and when “Parchman Farm” was a focus in the fiction of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty and was lamented in the music of Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Bukka White, and a host of other blues artists.

Both the legend and actual life and labor at the penal farm were influenced profoundly by slavery, Jim Crow, and the agricultural poverty and dependence of the sharecropping system. One could argue, however, that Parchman Farm had ameliorating features that accrued to the advantage of black (if not white) convicts and that by some standards—financial productivity, rates of escape and recidivism, and absence of riots—it was also a very effective penal institution. Therein lies a paradox, and it has recently inspired lively debate among not only litigators but also historians, criminologists, journalists, and prison administrators.

The story of Parchman begins in 1900, when the state of Mississippi, following the example of the Carolinas, embraced the ideal of penal farming on public lands and concluded the first of a series of land deals delivering acreage in Sunflower County to the state’s troubled penal system. Among the lands purchased was the “old Parchman place,” a large tract that once had been owned by a prominent county family, whose patriarch, J. M. Parchman, came with the deal as the first warden.

In establishing the penal farm, state actors considered the existence of a large and rapidly growing African American convict population and the unrealized public revenues of a brutal policy that since the Civil War had delivered the captive labor of black convicts to private business interests. The idea was to terminate a scheme of penology that might well have been worse than slavery and to generate revenues for the public weal.

In 1904 Parchman Farm became the pet project of Gov. James K. Vardaman, Mississippi’s “White Chief,” who regarded the undeveloped penal farm as a possible solution to the problem of what he called “criminal negroes” who were migrating to the state’s cities, seeking “a way to live without honest toil,” and menacing “the safety of the white man’s home.” Vardaman exploited racial fears and his virtual stranglehold on Mississippi politics to carry his plan to fruition. In 1912 the chair of a visiting legislative committee expressed astonishment: “Think of 16,000 acres of land stretching out before us as level as a floor and as fertile as the Valley of the Nile, in the very finest state of cultivation,” he wrote in his official report, adding that Mississippi now had “one of the best, if not the best, Penitentiary systems in the United States.” By the end of 1914 Parchman Farm was the hub of a huge, self-sufficient plantation system, with five penal farms and two lime plants situated on 23,910 acres.

The penitentiary was organized on principles that were consistent with what had been the ideal of large-scale southern agriculture for well over a century. Front Camp, on the easternmost part of the plantation, was the axis on which everything turned. There, a central administration coordinated purchasing, allocated labor and other resources, received and processed raw cotton, and conducted sales. In 1917 Front Camp had a barnlike administration building; a pretentious “Big House” for the “super” (superintendent); a number of shabby cottages inhabited by subordinates and their families; a guesthouse, at which visiting politicians and other favored parties drank and caroused in splendid isolation; a hospital of sorts; and a rather sad chapel for employees. Immediately outside the front gate, to which nothing resembling walls or fences was attached, was a railroad depot, Parchman Station, and across the tracks were a cotton gin and warehouses.

West of Front Camp were Parchman’s field camps—the equivalents of what were known as working plantations in free-world agriculture—and to each of them was allocated acreage for the cultivation of the cash crop, cotton, and truck crops for the sustenance of the convicts. The field camps were widely dispersed over the sprawling acreage, facilitating the proper classification of “gunmen” (convicts under the gun) and confining trouble to defensible space. Field camps were equipped with “cages”—dormitories resembling military barracks—and each was supervised by a white sergeant whom the black convicts dubbed “da Main Mos’ Man.” Camp sergeants were assisted by “drivers”—white men who supervised and literally drove gunmen in the cotton rows. Black gunmen assigned them the title Cap’n. Dressed in baggy “ring-a-rounds” (uniforms with horizontal stripes), the gunmen rose before dawn, rode mules to the fields, and worked under the guns of trusties in tight files known as “long lines” until dusk, helped along by the rhythmic chants of fellow convict “callers.” Scattered about the plantation were specialized units that housed convict carpenters, convict brick masons, and others who maintained the physical plant as well as a wide assortment of plants and shops where convicts performed services. Parchman had a canning plant, a dairy, a laundry, a newspaper, and a picture show. The facility also had a women’s camp, where sewing machines hummed, producing uniforms and crude suits of clothing distributed to convicts at the time of release.

Early in the twentieth century, the state’s satellite penal farms were important pieces of the puzzle. The largest of them, the unit in Quitman County known as Lambert, absorbed whatever surplus convicts Parchman could not accommodate. The others—Oakley Farm in Hinds County, Belmont Farm in Holmes County, and Rankin County Farm—housed convicts who were judged too young, too old, too sick, or too white and socially prominent for the rigors of Parchman.

At midcentury Parchman was notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which was its size. Six full miles separated Front Camp from the back side of the penitentiary, and within the grounds were forty-six square miles of cultivated bottomland. The prison was also unique among American prisons because of its financial productivity, functioning as what one observer described as a “profit-making machine” and providing the State of Mississippi with its greatest source of income other than tax revenues. But Parchman’s most remarkable feature was its racial orientation. It was, simply put, an African American institution: the language, the music, the food, the labor, and the recreation all were distinctly African American. American penologists dubbed it the “Mississippi System.”

Whites accounted for no more than about 25 percent of Parchman’s convicts before 1972, much less earlier in the century: in the words of one employee, the white boys were “incidental.” That, to be sure, was not a coincidence. Vardaman, Parchman Farm’s philosophical and political architect, had designed the prison to be an African American institution. The goal, expressed very explicitly by the White Chief, was to inculcate among the felonious members of the black underclass habits and expectations of work that might make them responsible citizens within the confines of the state’s racial caste system.

A succession of superintendents contended that the only problematic convicts at Parchman were white men and, finding their presence at odds with the institution’s mission, did everything imaginable to get rid of them. In 1916, when the Columbia Training School was established, the penitentiary’s staff happily bid adieu to most of the white males under age eighteen. That left a large number of troublesome white men under the age of twenty-five, but they were foisted on Oakley Farm in the 1920s amid much high-sounding talk of salvaging youth gone wrong. Then, during the early 1940s, Superintendent Lowery Love began construction on but never completed a special unit for those he discreetly termed “hardened criminals”—unmanageable convicts in the white camps. In 1953, when Superintendent Marvin Wiggins reluctantly began construction on Parchman’s maximum security unit, “Little Alcatraz,” he did so because of chaos in the white cages and much bad press.

Every convict, black or white, began his sentence to “penal servitude” in Parchman’s cotton rows. There, amid searing heat and choking yellow dust, many white gunmen faltered or flat-out rebelled, whereas the majority of the black gunmen worked through the tasks of hoeing or picking. Black gunmen were encouraged to make their quotas in the rows via a series of calculated incentives, the most effective of which was the prospect of a little time with “Rosie” (convict jargon for women, but in this case specifically a prostitute) after weighing up on Saturday. Prison administration considered the ready availability of recreational sex perfectly consistent with the black man’s normal lifestyle and thus a necessary inducement for hard work. The flip side of this racial profiling mandated that white convicts had to go without. Other incentives offered solely to black convicts early on included a ration of moonshine, which was produced at the camp stills by smiling “hooch-boys,” and visitation privileges. Visitation brought black families to Front Camp on Sundays, often aboard the fabled Midnight Special, a train chartered by the state that traveled the Yellow Dog Line through the little towns of the Delta. The train, marked by its headlight, arrived at Parchman Station before dawn and was memorialized by some of the blues artists who also served as inmates. The conjugal relations allowed during “mama’s visit”—a first in American prisons—were celebrated as well.

The penitentiary was presided over by a large and almost exclusively African American force of trusties, whose elevated status was confirmed by their “up-and-downs” (uniforms with vertical stripes). These men provided security, serving quite effectively as “shooters” in the fields, where their lethal marksmanship felled more than one “rabbit in the row” (a would-be escapee). The trusties presided as bosses in the black cages as well, allied with the white sergeants and drivers in maintaining order. The trusties commanded a convict hierarchy and at times maintained the status quo by whipping recalcitrant black gunmen with their sergeant’s “strop.” Perhaps nothing says more about the Mississippi System than this ritual. While the white sergeants readily applied “Black Annie” in the white cages, where convict leadership was often counterproductive, they rarely did so in the black cages, where virtually everything was done to acknowledge and support the ascendancy of a functional prison social hierarchy. Indeed, black “cagebosses” and “canteen-men”—the white sergeants’ “Main Mos’ Snitches”—were often quite influential in the delivery of the greatest incentives of all: furloughs, suspended sentences, and even pardons.

Black men also served as middle managers in virtually all of the penitentiary’s plants and shops, supervising apprentices of their race, and managed the homes of the white employees, directing domestic staffs composed of convict underlings and caring very attentively for children. But the “Main Mos’ Trusties” were the graying black men at Front Camp. They had considerable influence, keeping the penitentiary’s financial records, allocating precious resources, and coordinating almost everything with the blessings of the super. The slow but steady evolution of these distinctly functional internal arrangements ultimately changed the nature of the institution.

The advent of parole in 1944 and probation in 1956 resulted in the departure of the penitentiary’s senior black trusties. Accompanying the resulting erosion of management and security during the 1950s, a substantial and progressive increase in the number of white commitments posed insurmountable difficulties. The solution adopted by the legislature—the construction of a maximum-security unit and the placement of a gas chamber within it—only compounded the problem by changing the penitentiary’s social chemistry. At about the same time, Mississippi’s cotton economy collapsed, producing financial deficits at Parchman, inspiring free-world complaints about the ruinous effect of convict labor on the private sector, and resulting in a decline in legislative appropriations, the degeneration of the physical plant, and mounting fiscal difficulties.

The state placed Freedom Riders in the sweltering cells of Little Alcatraz in 1961, drawing attention to the facility. Frustrated white sergeants reacted with a number of atrocities, producing unprecedented political and legal pressure from new foes, including the US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reminded penal administrators that they dealt with human beings, “not dumb driven cattle.”

The penitentiary was also hamstrung by a woeful void in leadership in Jackson, where state politicians condemned the federal government and never seemed to understand that a faltering penal institution patterned after an antebellum slave plantation simply would not do. Old Parchman Farm was dead in the water when Nazareth Gates and his fellow inmate-plaintiffs filed suit in US District Court in 1972: far from destroying the old penal farm, the federal judge merely presided over the institution’s autopsy while attempting to chart a course for a future that even now remains uncertain.

Further Reading

  • Donald Cabana, Death at Midnight: The Confession of an Executioner (1996)
  • David M. Oshinsky, “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (1996)
  • William Banks Taylor, Brokered Justice: Race, Politics, and Mississippi Prisons, 1798–1992 (1993)
  • William Banks Taylor, Down on Parchman Farm: The Great Prison in the Mississippi Delta (1999)