Letter from Parchman: Inside Mississippi's notorious prison
The state penitentiary began more than a century ago as a way to subjugate African-Americans after the end of slavery, and it later maintained segregation well into the 1970s. And it's where Curtis Flowers has spent much of his adult life, sometimes in brutal conditions.
The first and third Tuesday of every month, Lola and Archie Flowers make the two-and-a-half hour round trip to see their son. On April 3, they woke up early, and by 7 a.m. they were driving west from Winona, Mississippi, in their blue Nissan Versa, barely talking, radio playing low. Lola's hair was neatly curled. Archie wore a crisp plaid shirt and exhaled a raspy gospel hum through clenched teeth as he navigated a series of county roads.
"You ain't gonna see nothing but fields," Lola said. A few minutes out of town, the hills began to recede, and the land on either side of the road became sunken, wet and expansive. The occasional plantation home still stands back along the tree line, far from the passing cars. In the summer, these fields burst alive with white cotton bolls.
An hour and a quarter later, a roadside sign hinted that the prison was near. "State penitentiary area," it read. "Emergency stopping only." Razor wire was visible in the distance, and a faint collection of shacks and sheds. "What you see up there now is Parchman," Lola said.
This is the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a notorious prison in the Delta often referred to as Parchman Farm, where Curtis Flowers has spent most of the past two decades. He's been incarcerated since his arrest, on Jan. 13, 1997, for allegedly murdering four people at Tardy Furniture in Winona. Through the many twists and turns in his case, he's never walked free, not after his conviction was overturned three separate times and not after two other trials ended in hung juries. After winning his appeals, he just remained behind bars waiting for prosecutors to try him again.
In 20 years, Archie and Lola have missed only a handful of visiting days — one for a surgery and the others during prison lockdowns. "We know y'all are coming," the guards sometimes tell them. "Don't nobody else show up." They search the Flowers' car as the couple pulls into the parking lot. They direct Archie and Lola through a metal detector and tell them to take off their shoes. They pat them down. Then the Flowers get on a bus to the building where their son waits. Before they're allowed inside, they are frisked and screened again. When they finally see Curtis, he's seated behind a thick glass partition.
"I go there to talk to Curtis, whatever he wants to talk about," Lola said. They speak through telephone receivers. They haven't touched since Curtis' sixth trial, in 2010. Still, these visits are more human contact than Curtis is used to. On every other day, he is just inmate R2436, one of 43 men housed in solitary 8-by-12 cells on Mississippi's death row.
Parchman is often called one of the worst prisons in America. In the past century, the penitentiary has been the site of numerous injustices: It used slave labor long after emancipation; it perpetuated segregation long after the Civil Rights Act; and violence has long been commonplace. Federal court rulings and a series of reforms have improved conditions in recent years. But life inside Parchman, the life Curtis Flowers has had to endure, is a brutal one.
The origins of Parchman Farm reach back to the fall of the Confederacy. In 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, and from one day to the next, the population of free blacks in Mississippi nearly doubled. To whites, especially those with money and power, this posed an existential threat.
"The plantation owners, as best they could, wanted blacks to return to the same place as they had been as slaves," said historian David Oshinsky, whose book "Worse Than Slavery" details the creation of Parchman. There was one exception in the 13th Amendment that gave plantation owners an opening: The protection against enslavement didn't extend to convicted criminals.
It took the Mississippi Legislature less than a year to pass a series of laws designed to subjugate African-Americans anew. Known collectively as the Black Codes of 1865, the laws used an expansive definition of vagrancy to criminalize all types of people: beggars, jugglers, drunkards, night-walkers and "all other idle and disorderly persons" who neglected their work or misspent their money. The Black Codes made it easy to run afoul of the law, and law enforcement used them to systematically arrest African-Americans. Before long, the population of black lawbreakers in Mississippi surged.
But there was no prison system to accommodate it. The state penitentiary in Jackson had been torched by Union troops in 1863, and it had only really housed white prisoners anyway — black slaves had been disciplined on the plantation by their masters. "No time ... to stay in jail; they had to work," one freedman explained at the time, according to Oshinsky.
In post-emancipation, pre-Parchman Mississippi, the state needed a way to contain its new convicts. So it started leasing them out as laborers to plantation owners, railroad builders, lumber titans and the like. In exchange, these private companies paid a small fee to the state and covered the convicts' cost of living.
"They needed a workforce," Oshinsky said. "The best workforce and the cheapest workforce they could get were convicts who were being arrested for largely minor offenses and then leased out for $9 a month."
The convicts were kept in horrible conditions. Their leaseholders could treat them even worse than slaves because they cost less to replace. They underfed them, left them to sleep outside while chained together and forced them to work endlessly long days. If a convict escaped or died — and they did — another one was sent in. This cheap and inexhaustible labor supply became a major profit-driver for big businesses. Soon, the state of Mississippi decided to get in on the action.
"There were two reasons for Parchman," Oshinsky said "One was money-making and the other was racial control. They went hand in hand."
The birth of Parchman
News broke in The Clarion Ledger on December 17, 1900, under a headline that read, "NEW CONVICT FARM." The Mississippi Penitentiary Board of Control had purchased 13,000 acres of land in fertile Sunflower County, along the Yazoo-Delta railroad.
"The land is all uncleared and none of it has ever been in cultivation," the article stated. "The purchase is a rich tract of virgin soil and the members of the board feel confident that when placed in proper condition it will make prolific yields."
The following year, state prisoners were moved to Parchman and ordered to prepare the area for farming.
The new penal project found its most vocal supporter when James Kimble Vardaman was elected governor in 1903. Vardaman was a populist and virulent racist, and Parchman fit neatly into his platform. He opposed convict leasing because it benefited big business operators, not the poor rural whites who had voted for him.
In his 1905 governor's address, Vardaman stoked hysteria about the "criminal tendency of the negro" and set forth an agenda both punitive and paternalistic.
"I want the negro protected in the enjoyment of life, liberty, the product of his labor and the pursuit of happiness," Vardaman said. "And the only way to do it, is to enforce vigorously the law against the vagrants."
By the end of its second full year of operation, the new penitentiary had earned $185,000 for the state (roughly $5 million in today's dollars), generated mainly by the many farm camps scattered across the Parchman plantation.
In that same two-year period, according to the 1905 report of the Penitentiary Board of Control, the prison housed roughly 1,100 prisoners. Ninety-one percent of them were black. The races were housed separately and assigned to segregated work crews. And 76 inmates — 7 percent of the total population — died, mostly from pneumonia and tuberculosis.
The workdays could run 15 hours long and 100 degrees hot. Though the inmates suffered from exhaustion, heat stroke, illness and injury, the prison kept running. According to Oshinsky, a traveling sergeant named Long-Chain Charlie regularly collected new farmhands from county jails around the state. A leather whip known as Black Annie was used liberally on inmates. Corporal punishment was administered by and according to the whims of the "trusties," armed inmates drawn from the ranks of Parchman's most violent offenders who were empowered by prison officials to brutally maintain order.
In the decades that followed, inmates grew peas, oats, corn and potatoes. They raised hogs and cattle. They planted cotton, picked cotton and ginned cotton. The women's camp stitched the cotton into clothes, including those worn by inmates.
In the 1940s and '50s, folklorist Alan Lomax visited Parchman several times. He taped the work songs and field hollers of inmates for the Library of Congress' folk song archive. His recordings brought a glimpse of life at Parchman to a new audience.
"Negro prison songs from the South," wrote a New York Times music critic in 1958, "have caught the sounds and essence of a life so distant from the urban North as to make one doubt at moments if the singers and the listeners are living in the same country."
That distance between New York and Parchman closed in 1961. During a summer of civil rights protests in the Mississippi state capital, the jails in Jackson began to overflow with Freedom Riders. More than 100 were sent to Parchman and housed in a maximum-security unit, allegedly for their own safety.
As a result, the deplorable conditions inside Parchman were reported by the national media. The governor of Minnesota sent a delegation to check on the well-being of several young Freedom Riders from his state who were being held at the prison.
Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett defended his treatment of the activists, reportedly telling the Minnesota delegates, "When people come here to willfully violate the laws, you can't expect them to be treated like they were at a tea party."
Change comes to Parchman
With the passage of a state prison reform bill in 1964, small changes began to take hold at Parchman. Use of the lash, Black Annie, was banned. Mechanical equipment was brought in to increase agricultural yields and ease the physical toll of farm work. Vocational training and job counseling were offered for the first time.
"We're trying to get away from the idea that while a man's here we've got to get out of him every pound of cotton there is in him," Parchman Superintendent C. E. Breazeale told The New York Times in 1968. "We're trying to think of the man when he's getting out."
This represented quite an ideological evolution for Breazeale, a Delta planter by trade, not a trained penologist. But the evolution on the ground was slow. Years after the Civil Rights Act abolished segregation across the United States, the camps at Parchman preserved the practice. At the end of the 1960s, nearly 80 percent of Parchman guards were still armed inmates who often brutalized those they'd been charged to watch.
In 1971, four Parchman inmates — Nazareth Gates, Willie Lee Holms, Hal Zachary and Mathew Winters — sued the prison superintendent, the six members of the state penitentiary board and Mississippi Governor John Williams in federal court. Their complaint claimed that the living quarters at Parchman were infested with maggots and rats, that raw sewage was dumped in the open, and that inmates were overworked, underfed, denied medical care and subjected to routine violence.
Federal Judge William Keady agreed. In his 1972 judgment, Keady found that "the living conditions provided for the inmates ... are generally deplorable and subhuman."
Keady called for an immediate end to the unequal treatment of black inmates at Parchman, who made up two-thirds of the prison population. He ordered the integration of work crews and residential camps, and condemned the Jim Crow-era practices the prison had dragged into the 1970s.
"Approximately twice the number of blacks are required to live in the same amount of dormitory space as white inmates," Keady wrote. "Black inmates ... have been subjected to greater punishment or more severe discipline than have white inmates for similar infractions of penitentiary rules."
The judge's harshest rebukes were reserved for the prison's violent trusty system. Keady called the arbitrary and severe corporal punishment exacted by trusties unconstitutional. He also criticized Parchman's three founding principles: that the prison must profit at any cost, that armed inmates were effective guards, and that fear was an acceptable means of control. His ruling put a decisive end to many of Parchman's most egregious practices.
"The most significant thing about Parchman is that it was a continuation of the slave system," said Roy Haber, the civil rights attorney who filed the landmark suit. "With a lot of pushing and shoving ... there were some improvements made."
Curtis Flowers was sent to Parchman in 1997. At that time, death row was housed in Unit 32, the prison's infamous supermax facility. We haven't heard Curtis' account of life there because the Mississippi Department of Corrections denied our request to interview him. However, there's one man in Mississippi who was condemned to death row and is now free to tell his story.
Kennedy Brewer is just about Curtis' age — 48 — and was already on death row at Parchman when Curtis arrived. Brewer had been convicted of the 1992 rape and murder of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter, largely on the basis of dubious bite mark analysis. Brewer was exonerated in 2008 by DNA evidence and released after 13 years behind bars.
He lives again in the town where he grew up, about an hour east of Winona, near the Alabama border, and works at a chicken processing plant. Brewer says he has tried to forget Parchman. He talks a lot about the faith it took to get through those 13 years. He doesn't dwell on the conditions he endured. "It's a rough place," Brewer said. "You got to have a strong mind."
The cells on death row were small, about 8-by-12 feet, and solitary. Inmates weren't allowed to decorate them. The walls were concrete, the floor was concrete, even the bed was concrete. Brewer was given a foam mattress roll to sleep on. It started out soft, but once he'd lain on it for a while, it became matted and tough. "When it gets wore out on that side, you just flip it over," Brewer said. And then after a while, you flip back.
Inmates spent 23 hours a day alone in their cells reading, writing letters and listening to the radio. Some went crazy from the intense heat — cell blocks at Parchman weren't and still aren't air-conditioned — the boredom and the constant noise. You couldn't see the inmates in the cells next to or across from you, but you could hear their chatter and shouts, the whirring of their fans and the drone of their TVs. For many, TVs were their only real source of information. Four inmates were executed during the time Brewer was on death row. He found out about their deaths by watching the news.
There was a little window in each cell, high on the wall, covered with a metal grate. Brewer would stand on his bed and look out of it. "Wishing I was free," Brewer said. "Nothing out there but the yard and grass and fence. Just a great big opening."
For one hour a day, usually after breakfast, inmates were allowed to gather in small groups either in an indoor break room or on an outdoor basketball court enclosed by a chain link fence. Brewer said he would use that hour to work out, doing push-ups and sit-ups in a corner of the yard. And he'd chat with other inmates.
"Mostly people talked about when they were in the free world. 'I used to go here, do this or do that,'" Kennedy said. "What a person was accused of, nobody never speak about it. You talk about everything else but that."
Brewer has a way of making Unit 32 sound difficult but not defeating. But there's evidence that it was significantly worse.
In 2002, the ACLU successfully sued Mississippi corrections officials on behalf of death row inmates at Parchman. A federal judge ruled that the conditions on death row constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Cells were filthy — crusted with food scraps, covered in raw sewage from backed-up toilets and flooded by rain water. In the summer, the unit was also plagued by extreme heat and mosquitoes.
The court found that at least six severely psychotic prisoners were treated with indifference and neglect, left to "scream at night, throw feces, and generally make life miserable for the inmates."
"The isolation of Death Row, along with the inmates' pending sentences of death and the conditions at Unit 32-C, are enough to weaken even the strongest individual," the judge wrote. He ordered immediate improvements.
In the decade that followed, the ACLU sued again, and Parchman began relocating large numbers of inmates from Unit 32. In 2011, Unit 32 closed. Curtis Flowers and the other men on death row were moved to Unit 29.
According to Curtis' mother, Lola, conditions are still quite bad.
"It is so hot, they just be sweating, just wringing away the sweat," she said. "And Curtis said there be so many mosquitoes coming in their cell at night. He said the man next door caught five rats on one of those little strips."
At the new death row, the cells are dank and the lighting is dim. There's no real time on the yard. Inmates are allowed an hour outside, but they spend it in individual pens. Curtis usually skips it, Lola says.
She worries about his health and that he isn't eating well. Curtis gets very little exercise and has become diabetic in prison. "If you're hungry, and your sugar drops, you're going to be really sick," Lola said. "The kitchen been out of order for a year now. And they bring them a little food in these Styrofoam plates."
Curtis calls his parents nearly every day from a phone that gets wheeled into his cell. They're allowed to talk for 12 minutes, just enough time to exchange quick updates.
When Archie and Lola visit, they have an hour or two to pray, complain, joke and dream with their son. Curtis talks about the heat and the bugs and about what he'll do if he's ever released. He plans to cook elaborate meals he reads about in magazines. One day, maybe, he'll open a restaurant.
On the outside, performing gospel music was one of Curtis' favorite pastimes. In the years before he went to prison, he sang nearly every week, sometimes with his father, who's been in gospel groups for decades. Music has always connected the two men, through Curtis' youth, the trying years of his six trials and his time on death row. These days, they do it through a glass divider.
"Sometimes we'll hit a little number over there at Parchman," Archie said. "Mm hmm. We got a song that he loved to sing."
Say you love Jesus.
If you love Jesus,
You ought to show some sign.
"Yep," Archie said. "He can tear that one up."