The Mississippi State Penitentiary — known simply as Parchman — has long had a reputation for brutal conditions. The state opened the prison in 1901, after purchasing a 13,000-acre plantation in the fertile Mississippi Delta. Convicts were forced into farm labor, sometimes working 15-hour days in 100-degree heat, leading to exhaustion, heat stroke, illness and death. Over a century later, Parchman is still hot — there's no air conditioning — and still deadly. The pandemic has threatened to make conditions even worse.
As coronavirus descended on the United States in March, Parchman inmates felt certain it was coming for them. In Unit 30, Randy Anderson and Larry Jenkins saw the advice on the TV news: Wash your hands, cover your face and keep six feet away from others. But they knew they couldn't heed these warnings. They had no hot water some days, no PPE and no privacy. Both men were trapped in bunkhouses with 108 beds packed side-by-side and guards who could bring in contagions from the free world.
Across the prison, the men in Unit 26 would soon find out they'd been exposed. Two inmates would test positive for Covid-19 and one would die. Dozens of others would sit through a 14-day quarantine, wondering who would be the next to fall ill.
When Covid-19 took its first casualty at Parchman, in April, the year's death toll at the prison, including murders, suicides and natural deaths, had already reached 15. With the virus possibly spreading through the prison, that number could climb much higher. There hasn't yet been a full-scale outbreak, but the inmates know that one is still a very real possibility.