Secret Histories | Inside “Parchman,” Mississippi’s Infamous Penitentiary Farm

Photo: Blood Hound.

The Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, began in 1901 with four stockades. By 1904, the prison was built. Following the design of slavery plantations, it had no walls or guard towers, just a few strands of barbed wires surrounding the field camps for the exclusively black male population, who were forced to work the cotton fields without pay.

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The first year of operations netted the state of Mississippi $185,000 (more than $4.6 million today). With the exception of the Great Depression, Parchman always turned an impressive profit, establishing itself as one of the oldest models of slavery in the prison industrial complex.

Terry Wilkins with Photographs, 1994

Terry Wilkins with Photographs, 1994

In 1915, a segregated camp was added for white male prisoners. In 1954, prison walls went up around the first maximum-security unit on site. A year later, Gearald A. Gallego was the first person to be executed in the gas chamber. In 1961, 300 Freedom Riders were imprisoned at Parchman, regularly humiliated with orders from Governor Ross Barnett, who reportedly told the guards to ‘break their spirits, not their bones.”

By 1970, word of abuses at Parchman had reached a crescendo, with civil rights lawyer Roy Haber taking up the case, presenting 50 murders, rapes, beatings, and violation over a two year period. In Gates v. Collier (1972), four inmates brought a suit to federal court, stating their civil rights had been violated by cruel and unusual punishment.

Shank Board

Shank Board

Federal judge William C. Keady found Parchman guilty of violating the Constitution. Reforms instituted lead to the creation of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, which required the hiring of civilian guards (rather than lifers armed with rifles, which had previously been the case) and the desegregation of the prison population (which lead to warfare between racially polarized gangs).

Today, Parchman covers 20,000 acres in the heart of the Yazoo Delta, and uses lethal injection as its preferred means to administer the death penalty. It has three cemeteries for prisoners who die inside its walls. As of 2008, it had a maximum capacity of 4,527, with nearly all cells being filled. African-American males made up nearly 2/3 of the population, with white men accounting for the bulk of the remaining third.

Gregory Applewhite, A-Zone

Gregory Applewhite, A-Zone

In conjunction with the on-going nationwide prison strike, work and hunger strikes have been reported in Mississippi, but it is impossible to verify if Parchman is participating in the call to action against slavery that began on September 9, 2016 as prisoners have minimal means of communicating with the outside world.

Instead, outsiders must take it upon themselves to go inside and see what has been hidden away from the world’s eye: the industry which plays a massive part in the United States economy, benefiting corporations with free or inexpensive sources of labor that rival the costs and conditions of Third World sweat shops. R. Kim Rushing did just thing, becoming the first independent photographer to go inside Parchman in 1994.

06Terry Wilkins on Bed 1994

Parchman CoverParchman (University of Mississippi Press) showcases 125 black and white photographs of eighteen inmates taken over a period of four years, along with images of handwritten letters giving voice to their lives. Rushing also includes photographs of the prison itself, from the barren landscape and the sterile interiors to confiscated weapons and the gas chamber and its inner workings.

Rushing writes, “I felt a connection to Parchman from my childhood. My father was a special deputy in Walthall County, Mississippi. He often transported prisoners from the county jail to Parchman to begin serving their time. I was quite curious about the prison. I didn’t know it was such a mysterious place and that others were curious about it as well.”

Field Workers With Guards

Field Workers With Guards

Rushing’s photographs are the opposite of mysterious. They are matter of fact affairs that are stripped down to the essential core of what remains when the humanity of life has been taken away. Reduced to the most basic functional elements of life, we see what happens when people are forced to exist in a hermetic (yet dangerous) environment. None of that danger pervades the pictures, but its absence is can be felt. Everything is to neat, to clean, to simple to be taken on surface level.

Rushing writes, “My real interest is selfish. What is it like to be an inmate at Parchman Penitentiary? What happens to an individual there? How does it happen? How do the prisoners feel about their circumstances?”

Parchman puts the key in the lock, cracks the door open, and invites us to abandon our illusions in search of the truth.

All photos: © R. Kim Rushing, courtesy of University of Mississippi Press.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.