Feb 3, 2020
Twelve Mississippi prisoners have died since December 29, nine of them at the State Penitentiary at Parchman. Governor Tate Reeves finally took the step of shutting down what he called Parchman’s “most notorious” unit, Unit 29. His action comes only after public outrage including a lawsuit on behalf of 12 inmates over disgusting conditions at the prison.
The number of deaths at Parchman in the last month is more than the number of deaths there over the prior eight years.
Parchman is notorious for its long history of violence and abuse, and deplorable conditions. During the Jim Crow era, mostly black men were often arrested for petty crimes and given lengthy prison sentences. Prisoners were loaned out to private companies and basically used as slave labor.
The state of Mississippi was forced to make some reforms over the years, particularly after it lost a lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners in 1971. Conditions, however, have worsened again in recent years.
Mississippi has cut its prison funding by 37 million dollars per year since 2014. As a result, the state has lost half of its correctional officers in five years. This is partly the result of low pay for guards, who start at under $25,000 per year.
These cuts have created what the state’s Department of Corrections commissioner called a “pressure cooker type situation” in which gangs control the prisons.
Disgusting conditions in the prisons add to this breeding ground for violence. Prisoners have complained of rats, a kitchen with a stopped-up garbage disposal, food stored in a moldy, warm cooler, and even sewage rising up from the plumbing system into the inmates’ living and eating quarters.
Occasionally, politicians make some pretense of prison reforms when prisoner complaints and public outrage force them to act. Conditions like those at Parchman are hardly unique to Mississippi, however. They reflect a society as a whole in decay. It’s a society that throws prisoners on the trash heap, exactly where capitalist society itself belongs.