Written By: Taylor Godby
Note: This story contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or dial 988. Local resources include the Mississippi Department of Mental Health DMH Helpline at 1-877-210-8513.
"Oh, listen you men, I don’t mean no harm. If you wanna do good, you better stay off old Parchman farm. We got to work in the mornin’, just at the dawn of day. Just at the settin’ of the sun, that’s when the work is done." —Bukka White, Parchman Farm Blues (1940)
About 100 miles south of Memphis in the Mississippi River Delta lies Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Prison. Mere months ago, in the summer of 2022—and after 121 scalding, Mississippi Delta summers—the state’s oldest and largest prison received air conditioning.
Cell blocks at Parchman, located in the scalding fields of the Delta, are made out of concrete. A U.S. Department of Justice report about the poor conditions at Parchman said temperatures inside the prison sometimes reach up to 145 degrees. Mississippi Department of Corrections (“MDOC”) Commissioner Burl Cain said that 48 air conditioning units have been installed at Parchman buildings so far, covering 40% of the prison population. With air conditioning, Cain said, the goal is to get temperatures to a comfortable 78 degrees.
Cain said the Parchman air conditioning project is $650,000 from MDOC’s budget, noting that he also expects to use American Rescue Plan Act funds. The process is expected to be completed in the spring of 2023, after which air conditioning will be installed at the state’s other prisons, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility and Southern Mississippi Correctional Institution.
“But a cold day in hell is still a day in hell.” The dreadful conditions that the residents and staff endure at Parchman Prison extend far beyond what registers on a thermostat.
The Department of Justice’s Investigation into Parchman’s Unconstitutional Conditions
Parchman is often dubbed one of the worst prisons in America, and for good reason. In the past century, the penitentiary has been the site of numerous injustices: it utilized slave labor long after emancipation; it perpetuated segregation long after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and violence has long been commonplace on its grounds. However, after a wave of prison riots and murders in 2020, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) began a two-year investigation into Parchman’s conditions.
In April of 2022, the DOJ released a 59-page report detailing the unconstitutionality of the conditions at Parchman. The report concluded that Parchman inmates have been subjected to “an unreasonable risk of violence due to inadequate staffing, cursory investigative practices and deficient contraband controls,” adding that “these systemic failures result in an environment rife with weapons, drugs, gang activity, extortion and violence, including 10 homicides in 2019.” Additionally, six homicides took place in 2020; three of those occurred in a single week—one inmate was stabbed 89 times, another 75 times, and a third was strangled to death, according to the report. In lieu of adequate oversight from prison officials, federal officials report that gangs moved in to fill the void.
The DOJ concluded that the prison failed to protect inmates from violence at the hands of others, provide adequate mental health treatment, or take sufficient suicide prevention measures. Federal investigators determined that state officials had committed systemic violations of the prisoners’ civil rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, including offering inadequate mental health and suicide prevention measures, allowing uncontrolled violence, and improperly subjecting prisoners to solitary confinement for months at a time. The DOJ also found that inmates were kept in restrictive settings, under dilapidated conditions, for long stretches of time—in some cases, for years. During those periods, some inmates harmed themselves, including cutting themselves and ingesting excess blood pressure pills or other medications.
In response to the DOJ’s allegations, Governor Tate Reeves claimed, “We have made significant strides at Parchman in the last two years, everything from significantly reducing the number of inmates at Parchman all the way to working with the Legislature this year to get funding to increase the number of officers we have.”
But How Many Lives Will Be Lost in the Meantime?
One of the reports touched on the conditions in restrictive housing at Parchman and revealed that a man who had been on death row for about 20 years had no indication or history of mental health issues. However, in February 2021, he began expressing suicidal ideations and seeking relief from the excessive heat in his unit. The next week, that inmate committed suicide. Per the report, the temperatures that week had reached 124.5 degrees. Temperature logs from the same timeframe at MDOC confirmed this excessive heat, gauging that temperatures had been between 95 and 145.1 degrees. The DOJ report concluded, “Incarcerated persons in prolonged restrictive housing in egregious conditions at Parchman can and do suffer mental harm, and this harm is evidenced by self-injurious behavior.”
Prison advocates decry what is happening at Parchman, claiming that it is too serious to be ignored any longer. “They have to shutter that place,” said Kevin Ring, president of FAMM, a national criminal justice reform organization that has asked for a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. “People can’t live like that, let alone be rehabilitated.”