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Impoverished to Imprisoned: The Prison System in the Mississippi Delta

By Caty Brown

Graphic by Sophie Williams

I grew up in the most religious state in America (Lipka and Wormald). My Mississippi elementary school’s intercom in the morning included a prayer—to Jesus Christ and the Holy Father Himself—along with the daily lunch menu. Rather odd to invoke His Almighty Holiness after the meatloaf and green peas announcement, but to each their own I suppose. The topics ranged greatly, from individualized prayers submitted by faculty and students alike, to prayers about the state of the world. Looking back as an adult, I am reminded of the Mark Twain quote: “Who prays for Satan? Who in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most?” I’m no great lover of problematic-at-times Twain, but this small insight struck me. We pray for the grieving; we pray for the sick; we pray for the hungry. We don’t pray for the murderers and the thieves. We don’t pray for the sinners, though they just might be the ones who need it most. Instead, we imprison them, in the hopes our communities never have to see them again. Lock the door and throw away the key is a terribly apt analogy.

Why do we forsake our sinners? I can’t be certain, and I don’t think the answer is an easy one to come by. After all, the American prison system is a system rooted in injustice, prejudice, money, classism, and fear. A multi-headed beast, to be sure. I’m no Hercules, so instead I’ll focus on my corner of the world: Mississippi. And, even more specifically, on the prison system in the Mississippi River Delta. The word delta refers to the nutrient-rich land that surrounds a river, created from the river’s deposits of sediment along its banks. The Mississippi River Delta Basin (which is near the mouth of the river in the Gulf of Mexico) is 100,000 acres of some of the United States’ prime agricultural land (Delta Basin). However, when the Delta was mentioned in my hometown, it more often referred to the high-crime, mostly Black communities surrounded by acres upon acres of farmland near the river. The prison system here—a system that began in slavery and uses educational and economic disparity to thrive—showcases some of America’s greatest injustices.

Although a lot has changed in Mississippi since 1865, trying to analyze the current state of affairs without looking at the historical background would ignore a lot of contextual significance. In the early 1800’s, plantation owners in Mississippi, along with those in many other states, started the mass importation of enslaved peoples primarily from Africa (Slavery in America). The fertile soil in Mississippi drew the attention of settlers, who then wanted slave labor to tend cotton crops. Many of the Africans who were imported had children, who had children, who had children, all of whom were still classified as slaves. Mississippi’s enslaved population was growing quickly. In fact, by 1860, the slave population was over 430,000, nearly a full hundred thousand more than the white population, at 350,000 (Williams). Even after emancipation a few years later, the vast majority of that Black population and their descendents stayed put. After all, despite the abolition of slavery in 1865, sharecropping kept many “free” Black people working for white landowners on the same farms where their ancestors were slaves. If you’ve ever heard of the blues musician “T-Model Ford,” or James Lewis Carter, you know an example of a Black Delta resident who stayed very near the land their ancestors did. Son of a sharecropper, T-Model died in Greenville, Mississippi, after having lived his final days there. Even though he had toured around the world—from Japan to Australia to all over Europe—the Delta was his father’s home, his home, and his children’s home (Grant).

Nowadays, Mississippi is still the blackest state in America (US Census). Its blackest counties, predictably, are in the agricultural Delta. But while the Black population there has done little migrating since the days of emancipation, the agriculture jobs have fled entirely. Enslaved people (and then free Black sharecroppers) used to be the labor behind the massive farms, but the industrialization of agriculture has changed all of that. Now, the acres and acres of agricultural land in the Delta rely almost entirely on machinery, not people. With machinery taking all of the agricultural jobs, opportunity has dried up.

To put it plainly, the people in the Delta don’t have many job prospects. What is there to do when most of the land around you is covered in crops that don’t need your tending, the infrastructure of your aging town is failing, and your ancestors have only ever been farmers, musicians, and homesteaders? Nothing but live in impoverished squalor. After all, Mississippi isn’t only the most religious and most black state in America. It is also the most poverty-ridden. At risk of sounding like a broken record, the poorest areas are also the blackest areas, found throughout the Delta. The five poorest counties (as shown in dark orange in the figure here) in Mississippi are found near the river, while the richer counties (shown in dark blue) tend to be in what is considered central and coastal Mississippi (US Census). Within these poor counties, citizens often cannot afford to support their local grocers or clothing stores enough to sustain them. Groceries and other stores are slowly trickling out of the Delta, as they fall victim to crimes like robbery—committed by the very victims of the institutional crime rampant in the area. Towns that consist of gas stations, convenience stores, and nearly nothing else typically don’t offer much opportunity for the residents living there. In the town of Shaw, which is in the dead center of the big orange area in the top left of the figure, the only grocery store shut down after the couple who ran the store were murdered in a cash register robbery. Thus, one more Delta town is further drained of job opportunities and left without access to fresh foods (Grant). However, there are a few places in the Delta where jobs remain. Prisons and schools are two of them.

Incarceration: Big Business

In fact, incarceration is the second-biggest industry in the Delta. Agriculture takes the top spot, but the prison system is the first runner up (Grant). The most well-known prison in Mississippi, Parchman, is located—you guessed it—smack dab in that big orange area. The word Parchman is infamous in the Delta. After all, this is the prison that, only a few decades ago, was probably the closest thing to slavery left in the United States. Though I won’t go into overly specific details about the horrors of days past, Jim Crow Laws and Black Codes—which came into the legislation after emancipation—were designed to put Black people in prison. Anything from “mischief” to “cohabiting with white people” could land a supposedly free Black person in jail (Lasting Legacy). Parchman utilized the Black prisoners it housed by putting them to work. Here prisoners worked on the vast acres of the prison’s cotton fields; here “Black Annie,” a three-foot-long and six-inch-wide leather strap, was used to discipline them; here the white warden’s job was to keep sending the Treasury the millions made every year on prisoner—slave—labor (Oshinsky). The prison has since undergone a lot of reform that reduced its acreage and ended its worst punishments. But despite that reform, the prison is still nearly choked with corruption.

One of their biggest issues, according to the previous superintendent Earnest Lee, is with staffing. The job requirements include a GED and no felony convictions. The men there often drop out of high school or end up on the other side of the bars, so most of the prison employees are Black women. Compared to the other jobs in the Delta (which are few and far between), the benefits and the higher pay than bagging groceries at a Walmart makes working at the prison appealing. But many of the women hired by the prison end up losing their jobs, whether it be for something ordinary or something more noteworthy, like the frequent pregnancies with the children of the male inmates or the rampant cellphone and drug smuggling (Grant). Difficulty in finding eligible candidates to hire combined with a quick employee turnover creates a staffing issue, indeed. If you asked me what one of the biggest issues is for Parchman, I would point to its 2019 Health Inspection Report. Within it, dozens of mentions of cells with no power, cells with no hot water, bathrooms with inoperable showers, bathrooms with holes in the ceiling, rooms with mysterious liquids leaking from the ceiling, rooms with roach infestations. The photos I’ve selected are merely a fraction of the dozens that documented these violations.

Corruption in Schools: A Part of the Cycle

Schools are the other place where a Delta resident might be fortunate enough to find a job, and problems amongst faculty and staff are rampant there, too. Once more, I need to backtrack to the historical context of the schools in the Delta. In the 1980’s, white parents feared the public-school system was becoming “too black,” so they pulled their children out and formed white academies. These academies required applications, specific religious affiliations, or expensive fees that conveniently prevented Black students from attending them. The public-school system became dominated by poverty-ridden Black children. With the loss of the money and influence the rich white families had, the Delta public-school system began to flounder. The brand-new Black administrators didn’t have the very-much-needed experience to know how to manage the newly unstable schools, to add to issues like having little funding and many “problem” students. After all, what student wouldn’t become a bit difficult to deal with if they struggled with food insecurity, a missing parent, or feelings of inadequacy in a world that treated them as lesser?

These mounting issues were difficult enough, but corruption sealed the fate of many of these schools. Nepotism runs rampant in Delta schools. School administrators hire friends and family that lack the knowhow to run a school, and the school children suffer. Take one of the previous superintendents of the Greenville School District, Harvey Andre Franklin Senior, who paid a friend, Edna Goble, 1.4 million dollars of the district’s budget to add the reading program she developed to the school’s curriculum. In return, she paid $36,000 on one of his loans, $9,400 for some of his home improvements, and $1,900 on his credit card bill (Grant). How’s that for quality education? This story is not an uncommon one. In the Yazoo School District, admin was spending double what the academies spent per student, but teachers didn’t even make up 50% of total faculty (Grant). Unfortunately for the students, dozens of schools in the Delta seem to have the primary purpose of employing adults, not educating children. And, quite expectedly, schools in the Delta often have abysmal test scores, poor literacy rates, and subpar teachers. This isn’t a coincidence: the corrupt, racially divided, mismanaged school system plays a huge role in the corrupt, racially divided, mismanaged prison system. The children who learn in these failing schools are far more likely to be funneled into prisons than children fortunate enough to learn—or perhaps be born—somewhere without this laundry list of issues. The school-to-prison pipeline at its finest.

Schoolhouse to Jailhouse

So, what might life be like for a person born into the most poverty-ridden area of the most-poverty ridden state? Well, they’ll likely have a chaotic home life, considering chances are high their father will be imprisoned at some point. They’ll have a diet that relies on gas station and convenience store fare, which may lead to health issues. They’ll go to a school that might fail to teach them to read or do math. Let’s assume they graduate. Let’s also assume they do not become addicted to alcohol or drugs or are arrested for any crimes they committed—or maybe didn’t commit—during high school. They probably don’t have the schooling necessary to go to college, so it’s time to get a job. The options might include a local Walmart, McDonald’s, or convenience store. They might work for a while, earning minimum wage with little to no benefits. Already, many Delta residents haven’t even made it this far. But let’s keep going. Perhaps they want to get married or buy a car so they can make it to the nearest grocery, or maybe they develop a cough that needs a doctor. They realize their minimum wage job isn’t enough to pay for these things. Do they start shoplifting to save extra pennies? Sell drugs to put extra cash in the bank? Or do they just try to live without marriage or travel or healthcare? Perhaps their best option is going to jail, where they might get to see a doctor, get fed on a schedule, and maybe even learn a trade if they’re lucky. If they’re not lucky, maybe they’ll die in jail, like the nine who did in January 2020 at Parchman (Timeline).

What kind of options are these? A system that fails its children and punishes its adults for that failure is a cruel facsimile of the American Dream. A system that cares for whiteness above nearly all else, operating at the expense of Black children’s futures, is one in desperate need of reform. And one of the saddest parts is this: in my home county, one of the darkest blue ones in central Mississippi, where I was educated well, where I was shown opportunities, where I learned to read, where I was born white in a world designed for me to thrive, I was taught not to stop my car in the Delta if I was alone before I was taught about the incredible injustice there. I was taught to fear these people before I was ever taught to empathize with them.

I’ve never heard a prayer for a prisoner. I’ve never heard a prayer, in my rich, white, religious home county, for the children of the Delta who are destined for poverty, and perhaps destined for prison too.


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