The Lasting Legacy of Parchman Farm, the Prison Modeled After a Slave Plantation

Special Feature 05.29.20 By Innocence Staff

Male prisoners hoeing in a field. (Image: Mississippi Department of Archives and History - Mississippi State Penitentiary [Parchman] Photo Collections, PI/PEN/P37.4)

Male prisoners hoeing in a field. (Image: Mississippi Department of Archives and History - Mississippi State Penitentiary [Parchman] Photo Collections, PI/PEN/P37.4)

Courtesy of Gloria Williams.

In her memoir Men We Reaped, Mississippi-born writer Jesmyn Ward recalls a Christmas Eve when she was 9-years-old and woke up in tears after a nightmare. In the dream, all of her uncles and father had been arrested and sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary — an infamous prison in the Mississippi Delta, often referred to as Parchman Farm.

“When I thought about prison, that’s the prison that came to mind,” Ward said in a 2018 interview with PBS News Hour. “I didn’t know much about it, but I knew it was a place I never wanted to end up. And the danger that I would end up there was a real thing, for me and for people that I know and loved.”

The danger became a reality for Levon Brooks in 1990 when he was arrested and wrongfully convicted in Noxubee County, Mississippi. And Ward’s nightmare, that she would lose her uncle to Parchman prison, became reality for Brooks’ 19-year-old niece, Gloria Williams. Brooks, her favorite uncle, was wrongly accused of raping and murdering a 3-year-old girl from their neighborhood.

“We knew he was innocent,” Gloria says, “that he couldn’t have done what they said.” Brooks spent 15 years at Parchman before being exonerated. 

“They just wanted anybody,” Brooks’ father, Richard Brooks, said in “The Innocence Files,” a documentary series on Netflix. His words encapsulate what it means to be poor and black in America — an especially common reality in Mississippi, the poorest and blackest state in the country. Today, Black Mississippians account for 70% of Parchman’s incarcerated population, while making up 37% of the state’s population.

“By the numbers, by all the official records, here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: Nothing.”
“By the numbers, by all the official records, here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: Nothing.”

Jesmyn Ward Author of Men We Reaped

‘The Ancestral Roots of Parchman Farm’

Parchman’s history is rooted in Black suffering.

After the Civil War, the South’s economy, government, and infrastructure were left in compete shambles. Desperate to restore the previous economic and social order and to control the freedom of newly emancipated African Americans, Southern states adopted criminal statutes, collectively known as “Black Codes,” that sought to reproduce the conditions of slavery. These laws are also commonly known as Jim Crow laws.

“The plantation owners, as best they could, wanted Blacks to return to the same place as they had been as slaves,” according to historian David Oshinsky, author of Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.

In addition to denying Black people the right to vote, serve on juries, and testify against white people, African Americans could be arrested en masse for minor “offenses” such as vagrancy, mischief, loitering, breaking curfew, insulting gestures, cruel treatment to animals, keeping firearms, cohabiting with white people, and not carrying proof of employment — actions which were not considered criminal when done by white people.

In Mississippi, Texas, and other states, legislatures passed “Pig Laws,” which labeled the stealing of a farm animal — or any property valued at more than $10 — “grand larceny,” punishable by five years in prison. Such laws were enforced almost exclusively against Black people, reinforcing the man-made association between Blackness and criminality. “A single instance of punishment of whites under these acts has never occurred,” declared a Tennessee Black convention, “and is not expected.” 

While the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, it carved out a loophole that allowed for the exploitation of incarcerated people, who were then and now, disproportionately Black.

The amendment abolished slavery and involuntary, “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.Prisoners — men, women, and hundreds of children as young as 6 or 7 — were then leased to private farmers and business owners who’d previously depended on cheap labor supplied by slaves. By 1880 “at least 1 convict in 4 was an adolescent or a child — a percentage that did not diminish over time,” according to Oshinsky.

For nearly a century, Black children could be bought to serve as laborers for white plantation owners throughout the South. (Image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D428-850)

States profited substantially from the Black Codes and prisoner leasing system. The number of state prisoners in Mississippi rose from 272 in 1874, the year the “Pig Law” was passed, to 1,072 by 1877.

“They needed a workforce,” Oshinsky wrote in Worse Than Slavery. “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 system was synonymous with violence and brutality, a murderous industry considered “slavery by another name.” In 1882, for instance, nearly 1 in 6 Black prisoners died because, unlike under chattel slavery, lessees had little incentive to safeguard the lives of prisoners. “Different from chattel slavery, ‘It is to be supposed that sub-lessees [take] convicts for the purpose of making money out of them,’ wrote a prison doctor, ‘so naturally, the less food and clothing used and the more labor derived from their bodies, the more money in the pockets of the sub-lessee’,” Oshinsky wrote.

Working prisoners to literal death was so commonplace that “not a single leased convict ever lived long enough to serve a sentence of ten years or more,” he wrote.

Due to shifts in the political and economic landscapes, prisoner leasing faded in the early 20th century, but in its place rose Parchman Farm in Mississippi, Angola prison in Louisiana, and hundreds of other county camps — prisons that used racial oppression to create a supply of forced labor.