mass incarceration

These Are the Prisons America Asked For

Protesters calling for the closure of the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm.
Protesters calling for the closure of the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm. Photo: Rogelio V Solis/AP/Shutterstock

Since December 29, Mississippi’s department of corrections has reported 13 prisoner deaths across the state, the vast majority occurring at the Parchman Farm state penitentiary in Sunflower County. Of the nine Parchman fatalities, two died in a rash of gang violence during the first two days of January; a third died of neck injuries after a fight with his cellmate on January 3; and two more died in beatings on January 21. (Another Parchman prisoner died of “natural causes” at a hospital in Clarksdale on January 8.) The initial violence prompted a statewide prison lockdown, which has since been lifted at every facility except for Parchman. A trio of suicides followed, most recently that of Joshua Norman, who was found hanging in his cell during a wellness check on Monday. The concentration of violence was unusual for Mississippi — the state averaged 3.4 inmate deaths per year between 2014 and 2018, according to the Clarion-Ledger. But the brutal conditions that prompted it are not. Their persistence over the years not only presaged this month’s violence, but illustrates the logical outcome of a system with no real plan beyond condemning people to indefinite suffering and looking the other way.

Oddly enough, the solution suggested most often for what ails Parchman is more funding. The notion that Mississippi’s department of corrections lacks the financial or personnel resources needed to sustain smooth operations seems to be a trans-ideological consensus, from advocates with the Southern Poverty Law Center to MDOC officials. Most agree that recent budget cuts by legislators have exacerbated an already dismal state of affairs. Many prison guards in Mississippi are paid at roughly minimum wage, which, given the state’s absence of an established wage floor, defaults to the federal at $7.25. This lack of a financial incentive for would-be applicants has led to understaffing. According to the Marshall Project, at least one privately run Mississippi prison — Wilkinson Correctional Facility — was so undermanned in 2018 that its administrators functionally turned their security duties over to prison gangs. Increased funding was the central demand in a lawsuit filed on January 14 by lawyers working with the rappers Jay-Z and Meek Mill on behalf of 29 Mississippi prisoners. “Plaintiffs’ lives are in peril,” the lawsuit begins, according to the Clarion-Ledger. “Individuals held in Mississippi’s prisons are dying because Mississippi has failed to fund its prisons, resulting in prisons where violence reigns because prisons are understaffed.”

This seems like a rational argument. If one accepts the premise that peace and order in prisons are enhanced by having more guards, and that funding translates to cleaner, safer, and more comfortable conditions, then it follows that hiring up and spending more is the best solution. But evidence undermines this reasoning. California’s state budget share dedicated to corrections nearly tripled between 1970 and 2018. By 2011, state prisons had seen two riots in the previous five years and were so overcrowded that inmates were forced to sleep in hallways, gyms, and day rooms, prompting the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that they violated the Eighth Amendment. In 2015, Wisconsin and South Carolina were separated by a nearly $20,000 gap in per-inmate spending, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, despite comparable living costs and tax rates. Yet both boast deplorable prison conditions. The crumbling and overcrowded Green Bay Correctional Institution in Wisconsin is notorious for its violence, and lawmakers and activists alike have called for its closure. Conditions at Lee Correctional Facility in South Carolina are so inhumane they sparked the deadliest American prison riot of the last 25 years, which killed seven people in April 2018.

The relationship between money spent and humane prisons is never one-to-one — especially in a country where the welfare of prisoners is an enduringly distant concern. The deeper problem is the animating philosophy behind these conditions. Mississippi’s state population is the poorest and blackest in the country. Majorities of its voters and lawmakers have responded to its abundant problems not by dedicating resources to social welfare or racial equity or  anti-poverty programs, but by saddling its residents with the third-highest imprisonment rate in the country (and, consequently, among the highest in the entire world). One in seven black Mississippians has a felony conviction today. More than half of the people housed in the state’s jails have not been convicted of a crime, which, in the absence of available data, can be surmised to mean that most simply couldn’t afford bail, as is the pattern in most states. After a brief period of reform-driven decline, Mississippi’s imprisoned population has grown every year since 2014. In 2017 alone, more than 500 people were sent to prison in the state merely for drug possession.

And as is the case nationwide, the defining feature of these prisons is that they’re overflowing with people whose humanity Mississippi has chosen to abandon. The rationale for their circumstances is that prisoners have committed crimes and been convicted for doing so, and have thus proved themselves unworthy of humane treatment and the reasonable expectation of an eventual full life in civil society. Their lot is civil death, often in perpetuity. And where despair prevails, so typically does violence. “[If] you ain’t treated like animals, you won’t act like an animals,” former prisoner Benny Ivey told the Clarion-Ledger earlier this month. But contrary to the impression given by this month’s killings, such violence is overwhelmingly directed inward. As I’ve written before, in any given year, more than half of prisoners are mentally ill and prison inmates meet the threshold for serious psychological distress at three times the rate of the general population. Suicides in prisons outpace murders threefold. Few responses are more understandable to an environment that encourages self worth to plummet so drastically, that reminds one daily how meaningless he or she is considered to be by their countrymen.

None of this is mysterious. These men and women live under conditions of torture. And although in theory more funding could transform prisons into rehabilitation centers dedicated to healing their denizens and facilitating their reintroduction to full and meaningful lives on the outside, there’s no evidence that a critical mass of lawmakers or voters are committed to doing so, even as public opinion seems to trend toward greater sympathy for people convicted of crimes. Prisons are the way they are because we’ve allowed them, and even encouraged them, to become that way. Granting them more money to advance the current orthodoxy, or even a slightly milder version of it, spells torture with a heftier price tag. And it’s torture with no endgame. All pretenses of a productive outcome — a lesson learned, a comprehensive safety achieved — have been dropped, if they ever existed. The point is to condemn prisoners to lives of perpetual suffering, and as far outside the public consciousness as possible.

We are privy to sporadic insight into these conditions mainly because the prisoners themselves have forced us to be aware of them. Cellphones are contraband punishable by longer sentences. Yet they are the foremost means by which people locked inside Mississippi’s correctional facilities have communicated — through photos and verbal testimony, to family members and reporters alike — the hell they endure. At Parchman, they testify to a life of “mold everywhere, rats everywhere”; of treatment by guards hardly befitting livestock, let alone human beings; of sparse electricity and water; of long-untreated wounds that still haven’t healed, of being forced to sleep on concrete floors with no cot or mattress, and of such a preponderance of vermin that food must be hung from the ceiling to avoid infestation. Yet when then-outgoing Mississippi governor Phil Bryant was asked at a press conference in early January who was responsible for the recent violence, he replied, “The inmates. The inmates are the ones that take each others’ lives. The inmates are the ones that fashion weapons out of metal. The inmates are the ones that do the damage to the very rooms they are living in.” Ours is a criminal-legal culture operating at the height of delusion. And its insistence that we keep feeding it despite its failures highlights the reality that the general plan for ensuring that prisoners be granted some semblance of humane consideration seems to be no plan at all.

These Are the Prisons America Asked For