Mississippi State Penitentiary part 03

 MSPAdminBuilding  MissStatePenAerialMapFebruary211992  OldCampOneParchman

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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.

Other facilities

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 superintendent'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. By the early 1900s the majority of incarcerated felons in the State of Mississippi were sent to Parchman. 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 the MSP property had a large size and a remote location.

David Oshinsky, author of Worse Than Slavery, said that in the early 20th century Parchman, from the outside, "looked like a typical Delta plantation, with cattle barns, vegetable gardens, mules dotting the landscape, and cotton rows stretching for miles." Alan Lomax, a folklorist, wrote in The Land Where Blues Began that "Only a few strands of barbed wire marked the boundary between the Parchman State Penitentiary and the so-called free world. Yet every Delta black knew he could easily find himself on the wrong side of that fence." 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. The facility, known as the "front camp," also housed an administration building and an infirmary described by Oshinsky as "crude." Newly arriving prisoners were processed at the administration building, and they received their prison uniforms there. Taylor and Fletcher said that the other camps "amounted to little more than wooden barracks surrounded by cultivated land." Within Parchman, the camps other than Camp One shared 15,000 acres (6,100 ha) of land.

In the 1930s the female camp, mostly African-American, was isolated from the male camps. An enclave within the camp was reserved for white inmates.

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 v. 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 routinely had humid summers of 90 or more degrees Fahrenheit with mosquitoes present, while the winters "are brown and stark."

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
Average precipitation inches (mm) 5.25
Source: Weather.com


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 1917, 90% of Parchman's prisoners were black. Most of the black prisoners were serving long sentences for violent crimes against other blacks and were illiterate laborers and farm workers. Of the black prisoners who committed crimes against other blacks, 58% had sentences of ten years or more and 38% had life sentences. Of the black prisoners who committed crimes against other blacks, 35% had committed murder, 17% had committed manslaughter, 8% had committed assault and battery, and 5% had committed rape or attempted rape.

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.

Prisoner life

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 superintendent 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. Cabana said "A life sentence in Parchman is an eternity."

Historically most male prisoners wore "ring arounds," consisting of trousers and shirts with horizontal black and white stripes. Female prisoners wore "up and downs," which were baggy dresses with vertical stripes. "Trustee shooters" wore vertical stripes.

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 trustee guard system often produced "disastrous results." Cabana said that the trustee system "apparently worked quite well, as there were seldom any disciplinary problems among the shooters." Because trustees 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 quicker 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 trustee 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.

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.

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