Viral Days

Words in Confinement

Lessons on literature and life from inside a notorious Mississippi prison

By W. Ralph Eubanks | March 11, 2021
Katherine Aberle
Katherine Aberle

On my trips up and down the Delta, I often drive past the Mississippi State Penitentiary, the notorious Parchman Farm, which served as the inspiration for the prison farms in the films Cool Hand Luke and O Brother, Where Art Thou? In Mississippi, Parchman finds its way into every corner of the cultural landscape, particularly the blues and literature. Driving past it, I can sometimes hear Booker “Bukka” White singing the words of his “Parchman Farm Blues”:

I’m down on Parchman farm
I sho’ wanna go back home
I’m down on Parchman farm
But I sho’ wanna go back home
But I hope some day
I will overcome …

In The Mansion, William Faulkner refers to Parchman as an unescapable “destination doom,” and in Eudora Welty’s Losing Battles, the hero, Jack Renfro, returns to his hometown of Banner after his release from the penitentiary, to find the place of his birth, despite its scarcity and want, peaceful and luxurious by comparison. The characters in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing reveal the real and psychic costs of cycles of trauma, poverty, and violence designed to siphon vulnerable people into jails and prisons like Parchman. Ward’s character Michael puts it best, writing of Parchman in a letter to his wife, Leonie, “This ain’t no place for no man. Black or White. Don’t make no difference. This is a place for the dead.”

In her memoir Trials of the Earth, Mary Mann Hamilton wrote, “I know I am the first white woman that ever came through what is now Parchman.” Hamilton and her husband were there when the land was cleared. Once that happened, a penal farm was established at the direction of Governor James K. Vardaman, who saw it as a means of dealing with “criminal negroes.” Parchman was established by eliciting racial fear and was rare among American prisons because of its profitability: the land was a lucrative farm that was once the state’s largest source of revenue outside of income taxes.

While I was growing up in Mississippi in the 1960s and 1970s, there was no other prison in the state. If you went to prison, you went to Parchman. It was common knowledge that a trip to Parchman was not just to pay for a crime, but also to humiliate and break the spirit of those who pushed against the status quo. It was Parchman, in a section of the prison known as “little Alcatraz,” where the state of Mississippi placed the Freedom Riders in 1961 and later other civil rights protesters for “breach of peace.” In 1970, nearly 40 African-American students from the University of Mississippi were locked up there after taking part in a protest calling attention to a list of Black student demands. Parchman, located on 20,000 nearly treeless acres in the middle of the Delta, equates its very name with punishment of a violent, vindictive variety. Today there is also a privately run prison in the Delta, in addition to other regional “detention facilities” that seem to pop up across the state. But Parchman commands an outsize presence, both in the Delta and in Mississippi. The network of fences, razor wire, and guard towers makes this flat expanse of land feel like a large gaping wound in the landscape.

Mississippi’s Black writers traditionally have left the region to hone their craft or to find an environment that will allow them to explore their art. Had the Mississippi-born poet Etheridge Knight (1931–1991), known for his first book of verse, Poems from Prison, landed in Parchman in the 1960s and 1970s, it is unlikely that he would have found his poetic voice. It was not a place for an education, self-directed or otherwise. Mississippi became a motif in Knight’s work, but he had to be imprisoned above the Mason-Dixon Line in Indiana to find his linkage to the place of his birth.

Today the Delta can be a difficult place for a poor Black person to escape. “Poverty travels with an entourage,” wrote Parchman inmate Gregory Frazier in his memoir essay “Snake Creek.” According to Frazier, the members of that entourage include “tragedy, crime, shame, pain, and death. All of which I have gotten to know on a first-name basis.” Based on my reading of essays and poetry published over the past five years, as I visited classes at Parchman run by writer Louis E. Bourgeois, I had begun to wonder whether there might be another generation of writers like Knight who are in prisons across the state. Bourgeois runs the nonprofit Mississippi Prison Writes, which provides classes on writing and literature in several facilities in the state prison system. The members of Bourgeois’s class at Parchman study writers from Camus to Kierkegaard, from Richard Wright to William Faulkner, in a setting that seems at odds with the pursuit of learning and knowledge.

On a chilly fall morning, I accompany Bourgeois to his class at Parchman. As we approach, a bruise-colored sky hangs firmly over the vast fields surrounding the prison, with a fine cold mist falling from the dark, blue-streaked clouds. We enter through black steel gates, and after I show my identification, I gaze back as the bars close with a slide and a clang, imagining what it would be like to not know when they would open again. Parchman was built in 1901, and class is being held in one of the original buildings. Soon after signing in—we are searched for contraband including mobile phones and cigarettes—we enter a room surrounded by surveillance cameras and filled with six men eager to read, write, and discuss literature.

On this day, we are discussing prison narratives, specifically De Profundis (“From the Depths”), written by Oscar Wilde during his imprisonment for “gross indecency,” as well as a contemporary prison narrative. Both texts are analyzed through the critical perspective of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, which examines how prisons have shifted the focus of punishment from the body to the soul. One student sees parallels between Foucault and George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye. Take away the surveillance cameras and prison stripes, and the discussion could be taking place in any college classroom. Yet the video cameras trained on us all remind me that in prison one is under perpetual surveillance. With the loss of freedom comes a loss of privacy, and you feel that imposed exposure intensely within an instant of stepping inside Parchman.

The men are evenly split between Black and white, and the discussion moves from the two prison narratives to how the writers’ words mirror life inside Parchman. This is not a high-security section of the prison, yet one of the readings, the students remind me, provides a window into what they would describe as “the red zone,” a place with a risk for violence. There is a line in the reading that all respond to positively: “You will never be the master if you never kill your idols.” In other words, everyone needs to know how to decipher the truth. I come to understand that, for these men, possessing the means to decode what is true and meaningful is essential to their survival.

This once-a-week class provides thought-provoking conversation that nourishes the men for the remainder of the week. “This class keeps my mind engaged in a way that allows me to feel as if my life is worthwhile,” one of them says. “I worry that other men here don’t have this or can’t imagine doing this.” This is a man who, like Etheridge Knight did, writes letters for other prisoners, some of whom are barely literate. I begin to tell them about Knight’s life and poetry, and they ask me to come back for a lecture and discussion of his work. Bourgeois sees this as a way for the men to begin to think about writing their own poems about prison and selects a group of poems that he feels will connect with their experiences.

Since 1986, there have been no women at Parchman. Bourgeois reminds me that the women had their own section of land to farm. Bourgeois’s Prison Writes Initiative conducts classes with women at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl very much like the one structured for the men: the focus is philosophy, literature, and writing. The common connection between the writing of the women and the men is often the experience of poverty. Yet a theme that turns up more often for the women is abuse. “From as long as I could remember, my home life was violent,” wrote Linda Ross. “A peaceful home was being molested in one way or another.”

Before we leave Parchman, Bourgeois drives me around parts of the expansive grounds, which stretch across five miles from east to west. We visit the cemetery, which I expected to be full beyond capacity of men and women who died within these walls, but one section is entirely empty. Off in the distance, we can see Unit 29 of the prison, which is the maximum-security facility and also has writing classes. I’m reminded of how John Grisham took his readers inside that part of Parchman—its “death row”— in The Chamber, a narrative that makes a strong statement against capital punishment. I begin to wonder how many of the white crosses represent executions by the state and how many represent lives just faded behind these walls, unclaimed by families and buried here.

This article is adapted from W. Ralph Eubanks’s new book, A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape, which will be published next week.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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