Analysis: Parchman farm disappeared after Gates

Nazareth Gates is not as well known in Mississippi as, say, the late Jake Ayers Sr. He should be.

It was Ayers’ landmark lawsuit in 1975 that forced Mississippi to confess it had failed to financially support the three historic black universities as it should. The state has spent millions rectifying its mistake.

Equally, Gates, as the lead plaintiff in 1971 in a lawsuit filed by civil rights attorney Roy Haber, brought about an end to the trusty system and inmates abuses at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

Also, over the next 40 years, the state of Mississippi spent millions of dollars overhauling its corrections system — and states similarly situated like Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama also were sued.

“There’s no question that the federal courts had to get involved,” said Don Cabana, a former Parchman superintendent and former corrections commissioner. “Things at Parchman had been neglected for decades … just ignored … not just the condition of the physical plant but the treatment of inmates.”

Decisions made in Mississippi’s prison system were subject to federal court oversight since 1972, when the late U.S. District Judge William C. Keady found evidence of overcrowding, forced labor and segregation at the state penitentiary at Parchman.

U.S. Magistrate Jerry A. Davis on March 10 removed the oversight.

Keady forced Mississippi to abandon the prison farm system created in 1901 when construction began in Jackson on what was the site of the state penitentiary. The inmates were moved to prison farms and the penitentiary was demolished.

The farm was located in the rich soil and flat lands of the Mississippi Delta. Amid the cotton fields, inmates labored in the hot sun, died in the hot sun — some at the hands of trusties and guards — and lived in squaller.

Keady toured the facility, taking reporters with him on some occasions on his announced visits, showing up alone — and unannounced — at other times.

Revenue sharing money in the 1970s financed improvements Keady ordered. The farm camps spread over thousands of acres of Delta soil with only the heat and flatlands to discourage escapes were replaced with buildings fenced in with razor wire.

Those new prison facilities cost more than $35 million, according to Department of Corrections records.

Cabana, now warden at the Harrison County jail, said although improvements were made at Parchman, he lamented the wholesale shut down of the camps.

“Parchman operated on the principle of small camps, where the warden knew the inmates and the inmates’ families. Now there are dormitory facilities with 500, 600 or 1,000 beds — facilities that took on the appearance of every other prison system. The inmates were just a number and guards didn’t know them very well,” he said.

Cabana also said the loss of the farming operation didn’t have to happen.

“I don’t think it’s been anybody’s fault. It’s the way things drifted in trying to address the federal courts.

“There’s no question that the corrections have been for the better. Overall, the impact has been good. I wish we’d been a little more insistent on maintaining the things that were good about the place,” Cabana said.

In 1986, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility located in Rankin County opened. It was the first institutional facility to be located away from Parchman. By 1990, MDOC had opened the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville.

In addition, the MDOC opened 17 community work centers and four restitution centers.

By 1994, that wasn’t enough. Lawmakers, at the urging of Attorney General Mike Moore, created a board to alleviate the immediate and the projected operating capacity needs of the correctional system.

More than an estimated $60 million later, MDOC has in operation three state run prisons, 11 regional prisons, six private prisons, 17 community work centers and four restitution centers.

Jack Elliot Jr./The Associated Press