(Michelle Thompson for The Washington Post)

Roy Haber was going to see about a prisoner. It was 1970, and he was driving up Highway 51 through the Yazoo Delta to Parchman Farm: Mississippi’s oldest, biggest and most brutal penitentiary.

"I was going to this prison that was infamous," Haber said. "And, you know, I was basically a young kid lawyer coming from New York to this wild country."

By the time Haber left Mississippi, the entire system at Parchman Farm would be transformed -- and so would America’s definition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In the ninth episode of The Washington's Post "Constitutional" podcast, we explore the prison's origins and the pivotal court case, Gates v. Collier, in which Haber brought to light the constitutional violations that permeated Parchman Farm.

This episode features the voices of Haber; Ron Sullivan, a professor at Harvard Law School and director of the Criminal Justice Institute; and David Oshinsky, author of “Worse Than Slavery” and a professor at New York University.

It also features archival music from Alan Lomax's recordings at Parchman, courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.

Listen to the episode here.

Check out the “Constitutional” Web page and subscribe to get new episodes free on Apple PodcastsStitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts. For updates about the series, you can also follow podcast host Lillian Cunningham on Twitter: @lily_cunningham

Transcript of “Episode 09: Fair punishment”

LILLIAN CUNNINGHAM: Roy Haber was going to see about a prisoner. It was 1970 and he was driving from Jackson, up Highway 51 through the Yazoo Delta, to Parchman Farm: Mississippi’s oldest, biggest and most brutal penitentiary.

ROY HABER: I was going to this prison that was infamous. And, you know, I was basically a young kid lawyer coming from New York to this wild country.  There's a vine called kudzu, which lines the highways and covers the trees and is beautiful, but it kills them. I remember seeing that for the first time.

CUNNINGHAM: The two-lane road turns empty. If it’s one those hot Mississippi days and the sun is scorching and the windows are rolled down, the distant horizon feels like a mirage.

HABER: The Mississippi Delta is very fertile land and it's completely flat. There's not a hill around. And so you can see the plantations miles and miles around. You're basically looking at cotton fields after cotton fields, soybeans after soybeans. There was a big sign saying “Parchman: Mississippi State Penitentiary.”

CUNNINGHAM: It was more than 100 years after the Civil War, but prisoners were out working the land like slaves on an old Mississippi plantation -- picking cotton, being whipped, dying in the fields, 20,000 acres of fields.

Parchman Farm notoriously jailed the Freedom Riders during the civil rights movement. It was the harsh setting of the film “Cool Hand Luke." And it birthed this iconic song, “Parchman Farm Blues,” in 1940, by former prisoner and musician Bukka White.

HABER: So as you drive up, it was abject fear. And there you would see the warden's mansion. You would see the administration building. And then you would see the front camp, where they put first offenders. You would then go through and be stopped by the guards.  They knew who I was, because there were really no other white lawyers going up to the prison, or any lawyers for that matter.

CUNNINGHAM: As I said, Roy Haber was there to see about a prisoner. But by the time he left Mississippi, the entire system at Parchman Farm would be transformed -- and so would America’s definition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

I’m Lillian Cunningham with The Washington Post, and this is Constitutional.

[Theme music]

CUNNINGHAM: “Fair trials.” That’s what’s supposed to exist in the American justice system before someone is convicted of a crime.

But what does justice look like after -- after you make your defense, after a jury of your peers hears your case, after the gavel smacks down and the word that rings out from the judge is “guilty”? Then what does justice look like? After a fair trial, what’s a fair punishment?

At Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, the punishment up through the 1970s looked a lot like slavery. Actually, in some ways, it was even worse.

DAVID OSHINSKY: My God, I mean this is a prison plantation, but this is destination doom. This place is a killing field.

CUNNINGHAM: This is David Oshinsky, who wrote the book “Worse Than Slavery” about the history of Parchman Farm.  Parchman was built in 1904, on 20,000 acres of delta.

OSHINSKY: At first it was basically swampland, filled with alligators and poisonous snakes. But what was also understood about the Delta was once you cleared these swamps, it was incredibly fertile land, particularly for cotton.

CUNNINGHAM: Parchman Farm was one of several brutal prisons -- styled after plantations -- that emerged across the South in the Jim Crow era, after the Civil War. And throughout most of its history, about 90 percent of Parchman’s prisoners were black men.

OSHINSKY: There was Angola Prison in Louisiana, which was as big as Parchman and produced probably almost as much cotton. You had Cummins Farm in Arkansas, which was very, very similar. What makes Parchman I think different in the American mind, and particularly in the southern mind, is that so many people have written about it, from Faulkner to John Grisham. It's really iconic in American culture.

The Mississippi Delta Blues probably began at Parchman Farm. You had people like John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax -- they were musicologists -- and they went down to Parchman. They would tape the prisoners as they played blues, they would tape the work songs in the fields.

[Prison music]

CUNNINGHAM: That’s Alan Lomax talking to prisoner Heuston Earms at Parchman in 1959. Alan Lomax made three trips there -- in the 1930s with his father, then again in 1940s and the 1950s. And much of the music throughout our episode is pulled from those archival recordings he made with prisoners, including prisoners Johnny Lee Moore, Ed Lewis, Leroy Miller and Ervin Webb.

OSHINSKY: Each group that worked in the fields would have what we called a chanter. And that person would basically keep the rhythm going for the work that had to be done, the picking of the cotton. And it is in those chants, which the Lomax's recorded -- dozens and dozens of them -- that kind of epitomize what Parchman is all about: the feeling of loneliness, of loss, the feeling of missing freedom and what is out there.

CUNNINGHAM: One of the Lomax recordings was used years later as the opening music for the film “O Brother Where Art Thou?” -- which was supposed to be set at Parchman.

OSHINSKY: So there's something culturally about Parchman Farm that I think sets it apart in the American mind, and a lot of it I think has to do with the fact that it is situated in the Mississippi Delta. People always see Mississippi as kind of the “darkest corner of the South.” And by that I mean it had the most racial violence. It was the hardest state to integrate. So we always look upon Mississippi as somehow the epitome of Southern racism and Southern brutality against African Americans. And I think Parchman Farm fits very, very fluidly into that narrative.

CUNNINGHAM: It was ultimately here at Parchman, in 1972, that a case called Gates v. Collier surfaced -- Gates being Nazareth Gates (a prisoner) versus John Collier, the superintendent of the prison. It was really the first significant case to consider what rights you have when serving time for a crime. It would challenge whether the treatment at Parchman Farm was constitutional. Or whether the whippings, the segregation, the forced labor, the horrific living conditions -- all which were evocative of a pre-Civil War South -- whether these amounted in the 20th century to “cruel and unusual punishment.”

What does the Constitution say is a fair punishment?

The framers addressed this -- pretty briefly and vaguely -- in the Eighth Amendment, which is part of the Bill of Rights. The words of the Eighth Amendment are: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

That’s it. That’s all it says.

This language was actually directly borrowed from the English Bill of Rights of 1689. Virginia had taken it from there and used it in its state Declaration of Rights in 1776. And then James Madison, a Virginian, borrowed it from Virginia’s document and made that language the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791.

When the British originally came up with that language for their own Bill or Rights in the late 1600s, they had a recent example of cruel and unusual punishment fresh in their minds. A man named Titus Oates had been found guilty of lies that led to about 15 innocent people being killed for allegedly plotting against the British crown. His punishment for this had been that, in addition to being imprisoned for life, Titus Oates was supposed to be whipped through the streets of London, while undressed and tied to a cart, for five straight days every single year.

RON SULLIVAN: So this case finally went to the courts in England and from that arose the predicate to what we now know as the Eighth Amendment.

CUNNINGHAM: Ron Sullivan is a professor at Harvard Law School and director of their Criminal Justice Institute.

SULLIVAN: This sort of punishment is cruel and unusual. You can't just annually take someone outside and whip them in front of crowds, for the crowd’s pleasure, and have people cheering and that sort of thing. That was the first practical definition of cruel and unusual.

CUNNINGHAM: So we have this one vivid example of what England wanted to do away with in its Bill of Rights; but it wasn't entirely clear what “cruel and unusual” would mean to those in the young American nation, when they borrowed that language.

SULLIVAN: Since the the Eighth Amendment was adopted in 1791, courts in the U.S. have struggled to give content to this concept of cruel and unusual punishment. These concepts develop over time. That is to say case by case by case by case. And after we have some number of cases, then we can infer broader principles.

CUNNINGHAM: One of the very first important cases that started trying to clarify which punishments were cruel and unusual (and which were not) came in 1878, so almost 100 years after the drafting the Constitution. In the case of Wilkerson v. Utah, the court made some very specific pronouncements. It decided that death by firing squad -- that’s okay in America. Not cruel and unusual. But public dissection, disembowelment, burning someone alive, quartering someone...

SULLIVAN: Quartering is a process where you have four horses, and each arm and each leg is tied to a horse and each of the horses go in different directions. And they go until your limbs are literally ripped off.

CUNNINGHAM: Not okay, the court decided. Those sorts of punishments violate the Eighth Amendment and can’t be permitted in America.

Fast forward to 1958, and we get a Supreme Court opinion in Tropp v. Dulles that tries to do away with this idea that any particular punishment can be permanently set in stone as constitutional or not.

SULLIVAN: Chief Justice Earl Warren there said that the Eighth Amendment must draw its meaning from evolving standards of decency. And as we progress as a society, the term “cruel and unusual punishment” continues to accrete meaning over time -- and that's the only responsible way to understand the term. What may have seemed decent in 1791 or 1821 might seem manifestly indecent today.

CUNNINGHAM: One of the biggest challenges to how our standards of decency have evolved came in 1972, with one of the most famous Eighth Amendment cases: Furman v. Georgia. William Henry Furman was found guilty of murder, and he was told he'd get the death penalty. He appealed his case all the way up to the Supreme Court -- saying that the death penalty, regardless of how it was carried out, should in modern times be considered a cruel and unusual punishment (and thus not allowed).

The Supreme Court sided with Furman, but just barely. The decision was 5-4. Because of the case, the death penalty was temporarily suspended across the United States until -- one by one -- the states could prove that they had clear and fair guidelines for when it was used.

But perhaps even more importantly, the Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia set out four basic principles for determining what should be considered “cruel and unusual” in any given era.

SULLIVAN: The first principle has to do with human dignity -- that is, you can't engage in a punishment that offends human dignity.

CUNNINGHAM: The second principle was:

SULLIVAN: The punishments have to be rational and have to be consistent.

CUNNINGHAM: And then:

SULLIVAN: The third has to do with a form of punishment that society is uncomfortable with, that society feels that it goes too far. And the fourth has to do with a form of punishment that is on its face unnecessary.

CUNNINGHAM: This brings us back to Parchman Farm, in Sunflower County, Mississippi.

[Prison song]

The prisoners there might have received what looked like a constitutional sentence -- five years in prison, 20 years in prison, even life without parole. But their punishment while there was another question.

When that young civil rights lawyer, Roy Haber, first showed up at Parchman, he had come to see about a prisoner named Matthew Winter, who was sent there after being convicted of murder.

HABER: And the reason for my going to the prison was to meet with Matthew and discuss his case and try to help determine whether it was inadequate representation and his conviction should be set aside.

CUNNINGHAM: But in the course of meeting with Winter and seeing the inside of Parchman firsthand, Roy Haber started hearing other stories.

He heard about Jessie Hayes, who had been shot by a guard for resisting rape. He heard about Walter Nathan, who was handcuffed and hung from a tree. He heard about Donald Waldie, who had to stay in a push-up position while a guard shot above and below him. And he heard about prisoner after prisoner after prisoner who had been killed by those who were supposed to be guarding them.

HABER: T he prisoners were housed in these large barracks that were completely rundown, filthy, 100 to 120 in one room. And so they'd be packed two to three high and crowded one right up against the other. There's virtually no place to walk in between the bunk beds. I would go into these barracks and I would be besieged by a hundred prisoners, and then I would sit with the prisoners and listen to their stories.

CUNNINGHAM: Some of these prisoners were almost as old as Parchman itself. They were locked up as young boys, with life sentences. And the cruelty went back just as far. Farther, actually.

OSHINSKY: Parchman Farm doesn't begin until the early 20th century. However, the Jim Crow laws and the deep-seated segregation begins right after the Civil War.

CUNNINGHAM: Historian David Oshinsky again.

OSHINSKY: Mississippi still needed black labor to run its farms and plantations. And, because of that, what Mississippi did was to pass a series of laws in the black codes which made vagrancy a crime. And that meant that an African American, a freed slave after the Civil War, actually had to carry papers around showing that he was employed in some form.

CUNNINGHAM: If he was found without papers, he would be arrested.

OSHINSKY: And along with vagrancy laws came what were called pig laws, and what the pig law did was to make virtually any kind of petty larceny a serious crime; so that if you stole $5 from a dry-goods store, you could be punished with a year or more in jail, often five years in jail.

So there are these all-white juries now sentencing particularly black men and black adolescent males to very, very long terms for very, very superfluous offenses. And it was done in some ways to kind of set down the social order. But it was done in other ways to make certain that there would still be a labor supply in Mississippi that was needed by planters and farmers.

CUNNINGHAM: And that’s because, in most cases, instead of sending these men to jails, the state created a system called convict leasing. It was a system that cast African Americans right back into a form of slavery.

OSHINSKY: What various town judges and politicians understood very quickly is that they could make a profit by leasing these convicts out to, say, large planters. And you would sublease them to businessmen who were building railroads or working on the worst kind of plantations or turpentine farms, or to work in a swamp-filled malarial field.

And you can make a very good argument that transportation in Mississippi, that the growth of railroads, was basically due to subleasing. It was due to convict labor.

The conditions under which these men labored was worse than slavery. There was no economic incentive to basically give them fair treatment or even to keep them alive. You could whip them to death and nobody cared. All you had to do was simply bury that person and get a new one. And that is what made leasing so pernicious, but also what made it so incredibly profitable.

CUNNINGHAM: But around the end of the 1800s, the practice came to an end in Mississippi -- not because it was inhumane, but mostly because poor white people in the state thought that it was only benefitting the rich planters and railroad barons, and was taking away potential paying jobs from white men.

OSHINSKY: So what happens around 1900 is that there's kind of what you would call a populist revolt. In Mississippi it would be known as a “redneck revolt." And these were poor white people who are kind of demanding economic justice. And one of their major causes was the convict lease, and their champion was a man named “The White Chief,” James Vardaman. And Vardaman was an out and out racist. He believed in no social equality or political or economic equality for black people. But what he did believe was that end the convict lease was very much in the interests of the poor whites in Mississippi. So what happens is Vardaman wins the election, and one of the first things he and the Mississippi legislature do is to end convict leasing. In its place, you get Parchman Farm.

Parchman Farm is really Vardaman’s great idea -- and that is to set up something akin to a slave plantation in the wilds of the Mississippi Delta, where you will have blacks who committed crimes (and of course justice was very unequal and uneven in those times, to put it mildly). But blacks who had been sentenced to five years, 10 years, on a murder charge or a robbery charge or the like, they would go to Parchman Farm. And at Parchman Farm they would basically be almost like slaves of the antebellum era. The only difference was that the plantation they were working on now was the state prison of Mississippi.

[Prison song]

CUNNINGHAM: In the early 1970s, while Roy Haber was at Parchman gathering prisoners’ stories and putting together a case, the conditions and the abuses he was witnessing there were the same as they had been since Parchman’s beginning.

HABER: Arkansas and Mississippi were the only two states that had legislation permitting prisoners to be whipped with a leather strap.

CUNNINGHAM: Roy Haber.

HABER: And the strap was called Black Annie. It was a leather strap probably three or four inches wide and maybe two feet in length. It was as lethal as any of the straps that you saw in any of the movies about the South.

CUNNINGHAM: The whippings weren’t the only way in which slave culture lived on at Parchman. The entire place replicated plantation life.

OSHINSKY: You had what was called front camp and that was where the superintendent lived, in a huge Victorian mansion akin to something right out of a Civil War movie like "Gone With The Wind." You then had farm camps, a number of camps where about 100 prisoners each lived, and there were thousands of prisoners. And they were spread throughout Parchman. Most worked in the cotton fields, acres and acres of land. And it was in such a desolate place that there really were no fences. Even though it was a prison, it was virtually impossible to escape from Parchman. So you just had endless fields of cotton.

[Prison song]

You had sergeants and it was a sergeant's job, like an overseer’s job on a real slave plantation, to set down the work rules: how many pounds of cotton had to be picked every single day, to set down the discipline. He basically ran the individual camp. Below him were two assistant sergeants and they were called drivers -- and that comes right out of the slave driver day. And they were the ones who really went into the fields with the the workers and did all of the supervision out there. And below them you had what were called trustees. Trustees were in some ways the most dangerous part of this operation. Trustees were prisoners at the farm and they generally were the most violent and and psychiatrically troubled prisoners. And what the trustees did was they rode horses and they kind of kept a boundary around the men, and they had shotguns and rifles.

CUNNINGHAM: And if the prison workers stepped out of line, they could be shot by the trustees.

OSHINSKY: So basically the discipline begins with the sergeant, goes down to the assistant sergeant, then the drivers. But the real discipline is meted out by the most violent and dangerous criminals at the farm, and they are the trustees.

The rationale behind the trustee system was completely economic. It meant that you did not have to go out and hire civilian guards who were going to cost money. What you could do was basically to use the labor and the prison population to do all of the work.

CUNNINGHAM: This meant the costs at Parchman were very low, and the profits were extremely high.

OSHINSKY: Parchman Farm was basically the leading cash cow for the state of Mississippi. I mean, they were adding hundreds of thousands of dollars and then millions of dollars to the state treasury. So they were an enormous economic asset.

CUNNINGHAM: Overlooked were the endless brutalities suffered by inmates, which Roy Haber started systematically documenting: murders by the trustees, lashings with the whip Black Annie, scars from knife fights, bullet wounds from ‘warning shots’, rapes, chainings to posts, vermin-infested living quarters, murders.

OSHINSKY: Roy Haber needed not only to confront the authorities at Parchman, he had to basically convince the prisoners that at grave personal danger they had to tell a story that the public had to hear. And Roy -- he was just a bulldog.

CUNNINGHAM: Prisoner after prisoner started meeting with Haber and detailing the things that happened to them there.

HABER: I went into all of the barracks. There were 11 of them. And I can only try to describe how disgusting it was.  In the beginning, when I would meet with all the prisoners and they would relay on to me how they were shocked with cattle prods, I would get into the car and just start bawling my eyes out. And I did have for a while a recurring nightmare that I and the prisoners were doomed to be in these coffins that were open, in a sense, for all eternity.

CUNNINGHAM: Many of the prisoners who spoke to Haber were punished afterward. For example, Matthew Winter, the first prisoner Haber ever met with there and the one who encouraged other prisoners to speak up as well -- he was sent to the Maximum Security Unit at Parchman where he was handcuffed to bars and beaten.

After several months of gathering these testimonies, Haber put together a list of all the tortures that prisoners revealed to him. It was, single-spaced, more than 50 pages long.

OSHINSKY: These prisoners are amazingly courageous, because they know that in telling their story they are going to face serious retribution -- and they do, particularly from the trustees at the prison. They are beaten, some of them are killed. It's a very, very depressing story. On the other hand what Roy Haber does is to collect so many affidavits that he now can go before a federal judge and basically say, “Look at this. Look what is going on here.”

HABER: It became clear to me that there needed to be something done to correct the conditions there. I made a decision that I was going to file massive litigation challenging the entire operation of the prison system.

CUNNINGHAM: In February of 1971, Haber filed a class-action suit in federal court. The four Parchman inmates whose names were on the case were Nazareth Gates -- a prisoner serving 10 years for manslaughter -- Willie Holmes, Matthew Winter and Hal Zachery. But the suit covered all prisoners at Parchman.

HABER: The United States Department of Justice came into the litigation after I filed it. They came in and worked side by side with me on producing the evidence to bring to the federal judge to try and get the judge to grant an injunction against the brutality.

CUNNINGHAM: The judge it went before was a man named William Keady. He was the federal district judge for northern Mississippi. He had grown up in the South and his father was an Irish barkeeper, but his parents died when he was young.

Haber convinced Keady to visit Parchman himself -- which he did. Four times.

OSHINSKY: And he is absolutely appalled. He said: You know, I always assumed it was like this and that's probably why I never came. And now I am here and I just can't believe what has been going on in our blindness for decades and generations.

HABER: Several weeks before trial we held the conference in Judge Keady's office with the governor, and the governor said: We are willing to stipulate to all of the facts.

CUNNINGHAM: The opinion that Judge Keady released in October 1972 was 21 pages long. In it, he said that:

“The policy and practice at Parchman has been and is to maintain a system of prison facilities segregated by race, and by which the black inmates are subjected to disparate and unequal treatment.”

He also said that: “The housing units at Parchman are unfit for human habitation under any modern concept of decency.”

And he said: “The evidence indicates that the use of trusties who exercise authority over fellow inmates has established intolerable patterns of physical mistreatment.”

HABER: It's based upon these facts that Judge Keady found that the conditions were so out of the world of progress of a maturing society that it was an indecent place in the face of a world that was trying to evolve with decency even toward criminals -- and that it was shocking to the conscience of reasonably civilized people. Those are the operative words that lead the court to say: Therefore it violates the freedom that people have to be free from cruel and unusual treatment.

CUNNINGHAM: Judge Keady declared the treatment at Parchman in violation of the Eighth Amendment. And he wrote, most importantly, that it’s not just specific sentences -- like giving someone the death penalty by disembowelment -- that can be unjust and unconstitutional; but that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment is “equally applicable to general conditions of confinement that may prevail at a prison.”

HABER: The Gates case at some level became the standard by which courts in the future ruled on whether conditions were cruel and unusual treatment. It also had what I consider in some ways to be the major outcome of that case, which was it ended slavery.

CUNNINGHAM: Ron Sullivan, the professor of criminal justice at Harvard Law School, had a powerful way of explaining the significance of the Gates v. Collier case.

SULLIVAN: I think the biggest story here is that once an individual is incarcerated, you lose significant liberty interests but not all -- not all of one's liberty interests.

That is to say, when you go into a jail, you do not go into a blackhole where no constitutional light reaches you. So a case like Collier says that these men and women still have the protection of the U.S. Constitution, notwithstanding that they have been duly convicted and incarcerated.

A nd that courts now are going to begin to look at what's going on inside of prisons to ensure that the fundamental dignitary interests of the inmates are not being violated. And that is important, because how we treat the most vulnerable citizens in our polity says volumes about our national character.

[Prison song]

CUNNINGHAM: Of course Parchman still wrestles with many of the problems that prisons across America struggle with today -- violence, overcrowding, lack of successful rehabilitation, unjust incarcerations. But major changes did come to the prison after Gates v. Collier.

OSHINSKY: Among them were basically you had to have a certain amount of square footage for each prisoner. You did away with the trusty system completely and civilian guards were hired. The superintendent had always been a man who knew something about agriculture but nothing about penology. You now had to have professional penologists at this prison, running this prison. The most important thing that was done is that prisoners were no longer required to work in the fields. So the plantation system at Parchman largely broke down.

On the whole, Parchman is a very, very different place today. However, if you drive by it -- if you drive down the two-lane roads in the Delta and you come to Parchman -- you would have no idea it's a state penitentiary. There is so much land surrounding it that you can barely see what is inside.

Parchman now is bigger than it ever was, which is quite remarkable. They used to have 3,000 or 4,000 prisoners and now they have about 50,000 prisoners. They are still spread around this 20,000-acre plantation.

HABER: I went back to Mississippi five, six years ago when the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the Law we were having a convention in Jackson with all the lawyers that had been in Mississippi. And I went up to the prison with my two sons. I called and asked if I could come up. And the woman answering the phone said, “Oh I remember you, Mr. Haber. Of course come up. We'd love to see you.” Which sounds a little weird, but I went. And I went into the prison, that woman greeted me and said, “The warden would like to see you.” I said OK. And I went to his office with my two sons, grown sons, and with tears in his eyes he said: If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be sitting in this chair today -- because the prison is now run with sergeants and commissioners and board members who are black citizens.

CUNNINGHAM: Is the story of Parchman Farm a story of progress? Yes, in some ways. More than that, though, it’s an explanation. It’s a way to understand why “establishing justice” in America has been so out of reach.

OSHINSKY: Parchman is a timeless story, and in some ways it's a uniquely American story. This is about crime and violence and punishment in the American South, and it really hinges upon race. And it talks about the discrepancies in the way whites and blacks are punished and basically in the way they have to live their lives.

When you look back upon what happened at that place -- the brutality, the feeling that blacks have no way of getting justice, that the system is rigged against them. All of this history really can be traced back centuries in this country.

I think what makes Parchman so important is that today, as in the past, but especially today, there is so much feeling of racial injustice around the issue of punishment. And you have to understand that those feelings have a history -- and that history is Parchman Farm.

[Prison song]

[End of episode]
Many thanks to this week’s guests: Roy Haber, the lawyer in the Gates v. Collier case; Ron Sullivan, professor at Harvard Law School; and David Oshinsky, author of “Worse Than Slavery” and a professor at New York University.

Also, enormous thanks to the Association for Cultural Equity for use of their Alan Lomax recordings.

Fife and drum music is by Othar Turner and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, with thanks to Sharde Thomas and the rest of the Turner family for its use.

Our theme music and additional compositions are by Ryan and Hays Holladay. The original artwork for our podcast is by Michelle Thompson.