The issue at Parchman Prison is bad conditions not cellphones

Prisoners at Parchman Prison
Prisoners at Parchman Prison

Amsterdam      If Parchman Prison in the fertile Mississippi River delta of Sunflower County is in the news, it means there’s bad news, never good news.  Parchman is the only men’s state prison in Mississippi.  Parchman is part of the Leadbelly story.  Parchman was the hellhole where civil rights and Freedom Riders were taken.  Parchman is the prison that is one of the central features of Jesmyn Ward’s award-winning book, Men We Reaped.  Parchman is a stain on the state of Mississippi that for inexplicable reasons, the state simply never seems willing to fix.

I’ve spent time in Parchman Prison.  No, not behind the bars, but in front of them, when I was a boy.  When my family visited my grandmother in Drew, Mississippi, my brother and I would sometimes take a ride the dozen or so miles down the road with our great aunt, Sue Bullock, the Drew Postmaster, to deliver the mail there.  The guards would waive us in.  We could walk around, wide-eyed, while Aunt Sue did her job.  Parchman was a plantation prison, and by that, I mean it was a working cotton farm when we were there.  Trustees on horses and prisoners in the fields were part of the scenery.  Everyone in Drew seemed to have stories of alerts from Floyd, the town police chief then, when prisoners would escape and might be coming their way.  Some told of finding escapees at their back doors, running across their yards, and under their pecan trees.  I drove by Parchman a half-dozen times last year after meeting with people in Drew and heading from there to Little Rock.  I didn’t stop.  I wasn’t delivering mail, but even slowing down, looking through the window,  the buildings looked old and dilapidated.

Recently violence broke out in Parchman and other Mississippi prisons.  Some died.  It was easy to ignore, until cellphone pictures of the horrid conditions in the prison and ill-treatment surfaced and ended up in places like the New York Times.  The pictures show prisoners sleeping on the floor.  Rats and roaches proliferate.  There’s no good news in these pictures or the oral reports from prisoners inside.

A huge amount of the response though isn’t about fixing the problems or doing better, but about cellphones.  They are contraband.  No doubt.  Officials claim they are dangerous and stir up trouble.  They are at least partially correct, because pictures from these phones create images that are impossible for people on the outside to forget.

Convicts have to do their time, but that doesn’t mean being treated like animals in the process.  Officials in Mississippi and other states need to stop with the cellphone coverup and get to work on the cleanup.  It’s a disgrace.

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