Updated: Apr 12, 2022
Located about 100 miles south of Memphis in the Mississippi River Delta, Mississippi State Prison in Parchman, is 30 miles from where Emmett Till was murdered in 1955, and surrounded by uninhabitable swampland..Parchman’s storied history is the basis for the prison farms featured in the movies “Cool Hand Luke” and “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, it’s referred to as “destination doom” in a William Faulkner’s novel “The Mansion,” and it is now a haunted setting in Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning 2017 novel “Sing, Unburied, Sing..
The history of Mississippi State Penitentiary is a history of failed reforms. Its creation in 1901 was borne of a statewide shame and frustration at the contemporary system of convict leasing, writes David Oshinsky, historian and author of “Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.” In the Reconstructionist south, states’ coffers were empty, prisons destroyed, and their former free labor supply was emancipated. Many southern states, including Mississippi, began arresting almost exclusively young, black men on charges ranging from laundering to larceny to murder. Many convictions were fabricated or embellished. The state began leasing the prisoners to wealthy contractors, who would further sublease them to companies. Under convict leasing, the inmates were essentially slaves again, Oshinsky said. They worked long hours for no pay, were poorly fed, and slept in tents at work sites doing dangerous jobs like dynamiting tunnels for railroad companies and clearing malarial-filled swamps for construction. Convicts, sometimes including children under age 10, were whipped and beaten, underfed, and rarely given medical treatment. Oshinksy writes that between 9 and 16 percent of convicts died yearly in the 1880s.
A&E Networks announced they had greenlit an upcoming four-part docu-series titled Exposing Parchman. The series will follow JAY-Z, Yo Gotti and Roc after they spearheaded a civil rights lawsuit alongside the 29 inmates of Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Prison. The doc will follow the inmates and rappers as they undergo lengthy efforts to reform the corrupt Mississippi Department of Corrections. The documentary comes after Parchman Prison made national headlines in December 2019 for its high death toll and rampant neglect of the inmate’s basic human needs. The series will follow the developing legal case and will delve further into Parchman’s longstanding history of corruption and abuse. Parchman was originally comprised of three separate farms: a small farm, which was maintained by white convicts, a smaller one farmed by women (mostly black), and a huge sprawling plantation for the prison’s black convicts. Over 20,000 acres and 46 miles, it was intended to be self-sufficient and profitable for the state, and it was. Convicts, called gunmen, picked cotton under the watch of the most violent offenders, who were given guns and called trusty-shooters, or trusties. The farm was profitable; in 1918, Oshinsky wrote that the prison had a net revenue of $825,000, or about $800 per inmate. Some of the Freedom Riders, a group of interracial young civil rights activists who boycotted Jim Crow laws, served time at Parchman, although they were segregated from the general population. Claude Liggins, 77, said the racism by the guards at Parchman was mostly directed at the white Freedom Riders. “They couldn’t understand why they would want to go against their own race and support us,” Liggins, who is black, said. “They had several white men who were beaten almost to death.”
In 1971, a civil rights lawyer named Roy Haber visited a convict at Parchman who was challenging his conviction. While there, Haber heard accounts from other inmates and personally witnessed the conditions, which he described as the last legal vestiges of slavery.
Almost a century earlier, the 13th amendment had abolished slavery in all cases except in penal servitude. “You can make somebody work if they’re a prisoner. Using that distinction, they were able to maintain a slave state within the prison,” Haber said.
Haber represented the inmates in a class action lawsuit against the prison in the now landmark case of Gates v. Collier. In 1971, the judge ruled in favor of the inmates, and throughout the next decade, he forced the prison to desegregate, eliminate “Black Annie” and other unconstitutional forms of punishment, and end the forced field labor.
Desiree Perez, the CEO of Roc Nation, said in a statement that Team Roc, “launched a fight to put a stop to the literal death sentences imposed on inmates through the inhumane, violent, and torturous conditions created by Parchman prison officials. We are honored to develop this series with A&E, Good Caper and ITV to continue to make sure the atrocities and history of Parchman are top of mind on a national stage. A&E has the privilege to partner with Roc Nation to tell the truly urgent story of Parchman Prison as we continue our commitment to impactful programming,” Elaine Frontain Bryant, Executive Vice President and Head of Programming for A&E, said in a statement. “The series is emblematic of larger issues within the U.S. criminal justice system, and we hope it spurs desperately needed awareness both at Parchman Prison, and nationwide.”