Hundreds of people stood in front of a stage in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, waiting for the rally to start, when a woman’s voice rang through the crowd. “What we gonna do?” she shouted. “SHUT IT DOWN!” the crowd yelled back.
“What we gonna do?”
“SHUT IT DOWN!”
“What we gonna do?”
“SHUT IT DOWN!”
The protesters had gathered at the intersection of Mississippi and North Congress, in the shadow of the state Capitol. Hip-hop blared from the speakers, activists circulated leaflets, and posters carried messages for the news cameras clustered on a nearby platform. One read: “Somebody’s hurting our people and we won’t be silent anymore.”
Just before noon, activist Sharon Brown took the mic. A member of the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition — and leader in the recent push to change the state flag — she traced the crisis across the state’s prisons to its legacy of slavery, brutally embodied by the Mississippi State Penitentiary, known as Parchman Farm. For more than 100 years, Parchman has been the site of forced labor, a plantation where incarcerated men still work in the fields. In recent weeks, photos and videos from contraband phones had exposed rat-infested cells, unusable toilets, and graphic evidence of medical neglect. As the images went viral, an outbreak of violence and a slew of deaths between December and mid-January thrust Mississippi prisons into the national spotlight.
Photos: Andrea Morales
“I wanna thank those brothers behind the walls that had the courage to let the world know of the injustices,” Brown said. “To let the world know that they are beaten, broken, tired.” The latest death had been reported just two days earlier, on Wednesday, January 22. According to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, 49-year-old Thomas Lee was found hanging in his cell that morning, inside Parchman’s Unit 29. This brought the death tally to 10 in less than a month. In the meantime, many families had not heard from their loved ones since the upheaval began.
Sallye House stood in the front row, in gloves, a winter hat, and a T-shirt reading “FIX YOUR PRISONS.” She had made the two-hour drive to Jackson from Batesville, with her daughter and son-in-law. It was her second protest in two weeks. At a vigil outside Parchman on January 11, she described how the toilet in her son’s cell had been broken for months, forcing him to urinate and defecate in plastic bags.
House carried a red folder containing copies of letters she had written to local officials over the years, begging for help for her 38-year-old son, Alchello. “My sole reason for reaching out to you is my son’s HEALTH and WELFARE,” House wrote in one letter from July 2016. Alchello had been transferred to Parchman after being violently attacked at a different prison. House had begged for him to be moved but was horrified when he was sent to Parchman, where he had been stabbed by a gang member years before. It was also Parchman where Alchello had contracted sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease affecting the lungs and other organs — and where he was now being denied adequate medical care. “Please send someone to his cell and take a look at his appearance,” House wrote. “His face is skin and bones. His neck and chest bones are sticking out.”
Her next letters sounded even more urgent. “Dear Sir or Madam, I need your help desperately!” House wrote in January 2017. For almost six months, she said, her son’s unit had constantly been on lockdown, meaning he could not buy food from the prison canteen, which he relied upon to supplement the meager portions provided by MDOC. She included pictures — “it is a matter of life and death.” The last letter, from January 2018, revealed Achello had thyroid cancer. “If he dies while suffering in these conditions there will be NOTHING done about it. That is why I am asking to move him BEFORE something happens to him.” Yet two years later, Alchello remained in Unit 29.
The rally lasted three hours. The speeches were brief and raw, testimony steeped in trauma and righteous anger. There were demands for accountability and calls for action — to contact legislators, to vote, to demand that Parchman be closed. But there was also an overwhelming sense of a deeper problem, too vast for words like “reform.” There were too many familiar stories, too many mothers like House, exhausted from years spent screaming into the void. “I’m just really emotional,” said Ann Adams from the stage. Her son was healthy when he went to prison in 2012, she said, but now he had seizures and suffered from malnutrition. She had not seen him in nine years.
Vera Young nodded in recognition throughout the rally. “That’s what’s happening to my son,” she said. She had come downtown in blue hospital scrubs, ready for her work shift later that day. As the rally wound down, she told me that her son is also housed in Unit 29. A case manager had said that he was OK, but she had not heard from him in weeks. “He’s always told me, from the time he’s been at Parchman, ‘Mama, if you don’t hear from me, there’s something wrong with me.’”
An Escalating Crisis
It was not long ago that Mississippi’s criminal justice system was hailed as a burgeoning success story: a state that went from decades of federal prison monitoring to a model for reform. In 2010, following years of litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union, MDOC finally shut down Parchman’s Unit 32, where men had been held in punishing isolation for 23 hours a day. Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps was lauded for reducing the number of people in solitary confinement across the state, “saving money, lives, and sanity,” as the New York Times wrote in 2012. Then, in 2013, Mississippi legislators voted to create the bipartisan Corrections and Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force, whose policy recommendations would save millions in taxpayer money by reducing recidivism — and forestalling a ballooning prison population that had grown by 300 percent over 30 years.
But the promised changes never took root. Epps was arrested on corruption charges in 2014. And the state’s nascent criminal justice reforms unraveled before they had even begun. Last year, an investigative series by ProPublica and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that the millions that were supposed to be reinvested to improve reentry had instead been used to cover corporate tax breaks. “Meanwhile the number of prisoners is creeping back up, and the lack of funding and staff is contributing to worsening conditions.”
Today, one of the biggest problems plaguing Mississippi’s prisons — cited by families and officials alike — is a dangerous lack of qualified staff. The number of guards has gone down from almost 1,600 in 2014 to 731, according to the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. Starting salaries are the lowest in the country, creating further incentive to smuggle and sell contraband cell phones.
But while officials have long decried the phones as enabling criminality — particularly by prison gangs — it’s no secret that the phones are a crucial lifeline for those on both sides of the walls. Phone calls can be prohibitively expensive — and families describe a constant lack of information from official channels. It was only because of cell phones that the public learned of a disturbing development in early January: The MDOC had quietly reopened Parchman’s Unit 32. A photo had gone viral on social media, showing five men in striped prison jumpsuits lying on the ground in a filthy cell. Lawyers later confirmed that the images came from the long-shuttered housing unit, where clients said they were being forced to sleep on the concrete floor and denied showers, food, and running water.
The escalating crisis was made even worse by a lack of leadership among state officials. The upheaval began with a spate of violent incidents in the last days of 2019, before Mississippi’s newly elected governor, Tate Reeves, was sworn into office. Three deaths at three different prisons led to a statewide lockdown on New Year’s Eve. That same day, MDOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall announced she would resign. As the lockdown continued, hundreds of men were moved from Parchman to a facility in Tutwiler, run by private prison giant CoreCivic. “During the entire process, the inmates’ needs have been met,” the MDOC said in a press release.
On January 17, activists and community members packed a room inside the state Supreme Court for a regularly scheduled meeting of the Corrections and Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force. The death toll inside the prisons stood at five. The lockdown had been lifted at all prisons except Parchman, where hundreds of men were still awaiting a transfer, according to MDOC. In the meantime, a high-profile lawsuit had been filed in federal court, while a second prison official announced his retirement.
“At least a few of the task force members appeared to be caught off guard by the public’s interest in their meeting,” wrote the Clarion Ledger. Judge Prentiss Harrell stressed the progress in the state since its policies became law in 2014, including a savings of almost $50 million. While unfortunately the money had not yet gone to increased wages of prison staff or improvements in the facilities, Harrell said, he thought the legislature would be open to such things in the coming session. “We do believe the pendulum is swinging.”
Yet the focus on funding tends to eclipse an obvious factor that has driven the crisis in Mississippi’s prisons: too many people in prison for too long. Activists had long pushed for meaningful sentencing and parole reforms in Mississippi, including revising the state’s habitual offender law and making it easier to grant early release to “geriatric inmates.” Although the task force seemed open to such ideas, it was unclear whether lawmakers would heed the call. The crisis had inspired no-nonsense rhetoric, including from former governor Phil Bryant. “Someone asked earlier ‘Who’s responsible for what’s happening at Parchman?’” he told reporters in early January. “The inmates. The inmates are the ones that take each other’s 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 that they’re living in.”
On January 23, the day after the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition announced the rally in Jackson, Gov. Tate Reeves held a news conference at the state Capitol. In glasses and a dark windbreaker emblazoned with the Mississippi state seal, Reeves read from a prepared statement, announcing that he had visited two of the state prisons in the past 24 hours. One was Parchman; the other was Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, which has stood empty since 2016. The governor was considering transferring men out of Parchman and into Walnut Grove, which would be privately run. “The majority of the prison can hold inmates as early as tomorrow,” he said.
But like reopening Unit 32, moving people to a private prison seemed like an obvious step in the wrong direction. The former juvenile facility run by GEO Group had closed after a federal investigation exposed harrowing conditions, including sexual misconduct by staff described as “among the worst that we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.” One judge famously wrote that Walnut Grove “paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”
Reeves acknowledged that there had been problems at the facility in the past. But he gave a practical explanation for the idea. The cell walls at Walnut Grove were made of poured concrete rather than cinder blocks, he said, which would make it harder to pass contraband.
“A lot of these things will seem like common sense,” he said. “That’s because they are.”
I last visited Parchman in 2016, as part of a tour organized through an academic conference at Ole Miss. The prison offers tours to schools, churches, and other groups, and the visit was carefully curated. Prison personnel welcomed our group into a visitor’s center containing rocking chairs and vases of fake flowers, along with a display of contraband collected over the years — shanks made from pens, spoons, and other materials. “They make ’em out of anything,” the guide said.
A tour bus drove our group across the prison’s sprawling grounds, passing fields where men harvest crops. The fieldwork is supposed to address “inmate idleness,” according to MDOC, as well as providing healthy food. “They do squash, broccoli, greens,” the guide said. After providing a hearty lunch — grilled shrimp, teriyaki green beans, and pecan cobbler — the food services director shared a story of a man who trained under him while incarcerated at Parchman. “He’s been released and is cooking in Memphis,” he said proudly.
There was at least one moment of blunt honesty during the tour. It came from a man 40 years into a life sentence, who spoke to the group about the need for education programs. “There is no rehabilitation in Mississippi,” he said. “Don’t kid yourself.” In the decades he had been at Parchman, sentences had gotten harsher — in Mississippi and across the country — while program after program had been stripped away. There used to be a choir, a radio station, a print shop, he said. “All of that’s gone.”
One woman on the tour became emotional remembering her childhood trips to Parchman, where she would see her father in what was known as extended visitation — weekendlong visits where incarcerated men could spend more time with their families. Mississippi ended the practice in 2012. Then, in 2014, MDOC put an end to conjugal visits. The risk of pregnancies was a concern, our guide explained. “Who’s going to take care of that child?”
In a state that claims to want to reduce recidivism, however, eliminating such programs has undoubtedly done more harm than good. Studies have long shown that stronger ties to family increase the likelihood of success after prison. And those previously incarcerated in Mississippi say that curtailing visitation and other programs have made a dehumanizing experience even worse. Al Coleman was at Parchman in the 1990s, during the time that many states began to eliminate educational opportunities inside prisons. He worked in the fields, picking cotton, potatoes, and okra. Such labor was supposed to keep violence at bay, but Coleman saw rapes and killings during his time there.
“Prison has always been violent,” he said. “It’s like walking into a zone with a bunch of time bombs waiting to explode. … If you’re being treated like you’re nothing, like you’re a dog, an animal, and you’re not getting the right amount of food, water, you don’t have no way to use the restroom, the frustration constantly builds.” The main difference he sees now is that people on the outside can see the evidence for themselves.
On the day after the rally in Jackson, Jessica Young went to visit her brother, Cedric, at Marshall County Correctional Facility, a private prison run by the Utah-based Management and Training Corporation. He’d been transferred to MCCF from Parchman months earlier, but the conditions were not much better. The visitation room was freezing; her brother said it was much colder in the housing units.
Cedric was convicted in 2017 for a crime he swore he did not commit. When he first got to prison, he was not given a change of clothes for months. Photos revealed disgusting meal trays, dull-colored clumps of food impossible to identify. “We were scared to post them because we didn’t want anything to happen to him,” Young said. But now that the images are out in the open. They are less afraid.
The visit lasted from 11 until around 2:30. Later that night, she heard from her brother again. He told her that he had returned to his unit to find out that a man had died at the prison that day. “The whole time we were in visitation with him, there was an inmate in the back, dead,” Young said. A cell phone video captured the scene; men calling out for attention while the lifeless body laid there. Guards are supposed to do routine checks of each housing units, but there was nobody answering. “It’s devastating,” Young said. The problems were much bigger than Parchman, much bigger than Unit 29. “The entire MDOC as a whole is hitting rock-bottom.”
The man who died was later identified as 38-year-old Jermaine Tyler. The next day, another death was reported at Parchman: 26-year-old Joshua Norman, a man from Young’s hometown. Then, two more deaths, at two different prisons across the state: 28-year-old Limarion Reaves on January 29, followed by 52-year-old Nora Ducksworth at MCCF, on the 30th. In total, 14 men died in Mississippi prisons since December 29.
In the meantime, the governor gave his first State of the State address at the state Capitol. He had a big announcement. “I have instructed the Mississippi Department of Corrections to begin the necessary work to start closing Parchman’s most notorious unit, Unit 29,” he said. Although logistical questions remained, he said, “I have seen enough. We have to turn the page.”