This ongoing catastrophe has brought national attention to miserable conditions throughout the state’s penal system, particularly at Parchman. Incarcerated people have used “contraband” cellphones to beg the outside world for help. A live Facebook broadcast showed a raging fire as inmates brawled. Other images showed men lying huddled together on flooded floors, black mold and broken toilets.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and civil rights groups have requested that the federal government investigate violations of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment outlawing cruel and unusual punishment. Hip-hop stars and criminal justice reformers Jay-Z and Yo Gotti are providing lawyers to represent 29 inmates in a federal lawsuit. Both complaints cite problems that Mississippi’s Department of Corrections acknowledges: The acute shortage and underpayment of staff has fed a toxic environment in which gangs wield unfettered power using brutality and fear.
But these problems are just recent manifestations of the state’s long history of neglect, and at times willful abuse, of incarcerated people. Reform efforts have largely failed because the remedies ignored an uncomfortable truth about Mississippi’s penal system: It was built on principles and practices of eugenics that have today metastasized into a permanently dangerous, violent environment.
Eugenics is a term “loaded with historical significance” dating back to Plato, but its modern roots lie in the late 19th century, when British scientist Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, set out to improve human “stock.” His goal was to encourage births (the literal meaning of eugenics) among healthy people, while limiting or ending reproduction by those with diseases and disabilities with the hope of their future eradication. While we think of the Nazis and other hideous variations of eugenics, this root idea also spawned many facets of modern life, from birth control to testing for genetic disorders.
In the American South, however, eugenics fit seamlessly with racial attitudes and conceptions of public health, leading to new ideas like “born criminality” and “feeblemindedness” that were used to justify harsh institutional control of African Americans and “lesser” whites. The words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in upholding Virginia’s Eugenical Sterilization Act of 1924 and opening the way for other states to pass similar legislation, are infamous: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Mississippi ratified its own sterilization law in 1928 and moved its “lunatic asylum” to Parchman in 1935. Parchman had been founded in 1901 as a penal farm modeled on a cotton plantation and from its earliest days had existed to remove “undesirables” from larger society. Mississippi Gov. James K. Vardaman, serving from 1904 to 1908 and known as “the White Chief,” instilled the idea that manual labor would rehabilitate black Mississippians, who made up a majority of state prisoners and who were considered by most whites to be congenitally predisposed to criminality.
So-called trustys, who were often white convicts with long sentences for violent crimes, kept order with rifles and could even be pardoned for killing a person who tried or succeeded in escaping. The system worked — Parchman had no walls or cells. In fact, after covering its operating expenses, it generated huge profits, controlled by the state legislature. Politically popular, Vardaman’s vision for the prison remained in place for decades.
Sterilization served to further dehumanize prisoners at Parchman. Female convicts, who rarely numbered more than 65 out of roughly 3,500 total inmates and were predominantly black, received extensive medical attention. Prison hospital reports from the Depression era show regular and relatively high numbers of hysterectomies, salpingectomies (surgical removal of one or both fallopian tubes) and oophorectomies (removal of ovaries). In one two-year period, for only 26 female inmates, nine reproductive medical operations were performed, six described as “obstetric cases.”
Without further research, the details of these procedures remain mysterious. But most of the possibilities speak to the abuse of prisoners: Eugenic sterilization is one possibility. So are procedures resulting from “conjugal visits,” sanctioned as a unique “Mississippi experiment” until 2014 and justified initially as a form of payment through privileges for male inmates whose labor was expected to produce a profit. Women were not entitled to this privilege, although evidence suggests sexual contact with guards and male prisoners.
It’s also possible that these women were guinea pigs. Parchman was considered “a scientific testing ground” in the words of Felix Underwood, a physician and the director of the Mississippi State Board of Health, for more than three decades. In one experiment, U.S. National Public Health Service doctor Joseph Goldberger induced pellagra, a dietary deficiency, in white, healthy male inmates at Parchman in 1915 in exchange for pardons. Such medical experimentation contributed to Mississippi’s reputation in the 1930s as a leading public health service provider.
Selling Parchman as a place to do experiments to improve public health may have been a way to generate financial support. Mississippi citizens did not want to spend tax dollars on prisoners or the poor. Indeed, forcing incarcerated people to pay society with all they had left — their bodies — seemed right, even rehabilitative.
Though hard to imagine today, Parchman represented progress to state officials and the public alike. This sense meant that staffing and other matters at Parchman were left to the governor, with little attention paid by the public, and became in the words of scholar William Banks Taylor “a pork barrel of gubernatorial patronage … fraught with potential for graft and human abuse.”
Meaningful reform did not come until 1972, when federal Judge William Keady, in the case of Gates v. Collier, concluded that the state had violated the Eighth Amendment. He ordered the abolition of the trusty system and desegregation of living quarters. Prison officials only grudgingly complied, seeing the judge as a meddler.
Nonetheless, the reforms resulted in more prison guards and smaller, new sites to spread out inmates from overcrowded facilities. Yet, the thirst in the 1980s and 1990s for tough-on-crime policies and the drug war meant an influx of new prisoners.
This influx, along with a continued unwillingness to adequately fund correctional facilities, led Mississippi to embrace the use of private prisons. Eventually, a federal investigation into the private correctional facility at Walnut Grove led to the 2014 conviction of Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps and others on bribery and corruption charges. Further problems with the state’s private prisons have been exposed by a class-action suit against the privately run East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Meridian.
Mississippi requires correctional companies to operate at a lower cost than state institutions. Private prison guards are therefore paid less and have shorter training than their counterparts working for the state, reasons that prison reform advocates say explain higher rates of violence and neglect at East Mississippi.
Yet today Mississippi is even more dependent on private prisons, after Reeves rehoused hundreds of Parchman inmates while trying to regain control of the penitentiary and find a new commissioner. He has not ruled out sending more people to private prisons as legislators debate reducing the state’s spending on prisons even further.
Understanding the crisis at Parchman as the result of a long tradition of dehumanizing inmates and chronically underfunding prisons is critical to identifying the only remedy. State officials must recognize that incarcerated people have a right to bodily integrity, which means among many things, protection from violence — whatever the additional cost. Reeves has promised to “right the wrongs of the past and protect the dignity of every Mississippi life.” For this to happen, prison reform must focus on understanding and reducing violence, from gang rule to self-harm, that has been tolerated for much too long thanks to warped ideas of just punishment.
This piece has been updated to reflect an additional death in the Mississippi penal system.