Wednesday, 24 October 2012


22 – 23rd October 2012
If you can – try listening to CW Stoneking – Jail House Blues whilst reading this
After having a weekend of “freelancing” accommodation, I try to set Siobhan (Satnav) (thanks Kelly Rogan for your poem)  to take to my next accommodation in Jackson Mississippi. 

After several failed attempts, and a phone call to the Knights Inn, I realise that it the accommodation has been booked for Jackson Tennessee, not Jackson Mississippi. 

Whilst the drive to and from Tennessee, is possible, it is probably not wise to add another 8 hours of driving to Tennessee, back to Parchmann, Mississippi etc and then onto Jackson (MS) for a flight to California. (The whole Jackson thing got me thinkin’; “so which Jackson did Johhny Cash and June Carter singing about?” (both JC’s.... a slightly religious undertone)  and the answer is ....  – no one really knows ( I always thought it was Jackson (MS) but had not good reason for this. (Note – there are a lot of Jacksons in the USA!)

The Mississippi State Penitentiary is also referred to as "Parchman Farm". 
There is not really much else in Parchman and it is many miles from anywhere.
Indianola, a town in Mississippi Delta – that is the most half way town between Parchman Farm and Jackson (MS) is where I choose to lay my hat. The population of Indianola is about 12,0000. It has an “interesting social history” - In July 1954, two months after the Supreme Court of the United States announced its unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ruling that school segregation was unconstitutional, the local plantation manager Robert B. Patterson met with a group of like-minded individuals in a private home in Indianola to form the White Citizens' Council whose goal was to resist any implementation of racial integration in Mississippi. Indianola itself is quite  remote and has been named as one of the last economically viable small towns in the Mississippi Delta. In August 2011, Delta Pride, a catfish processing company, closed its plant in Indianola. (these facts all came  from the hotel room inflammation!)

There is another more important reason to pick Indianola as the place to stay – It’s historical Blues background. – You probably can’t get more Blue than around here! 

It is the birthplace of the blues musician Albert King – “The Velvet Bulldozer”; The blues harp player, Little Arthur Duncan, and Henry Sloan lived in Indianola. harley Patton died near the city. Apparently,B.B. King grew up in Indianola as a child. He comes to the blues festival named for him every year. King also referenced the city with the title of his 1970 album Indianola Mississippi Seeds.  A visit to the The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, dedicated to King and the blues, is essential. There are many streets named after King and his music, including B.B. King Road, Lucille St. (named after his guitar), and Delta Blues St.

As mentioned, there a strong link between Blues music and the prison system in Mississippi.

Parchman is the title of a number of songs about Mississippi State Penitentiary (MSP); historically a hard time prison because of the Trusty system (now outlawed). Under this system, designated prisoners were used by staff to control and administer physical punishment to other inmates.  There have been a number of blues songs written about Parchman Farm and several Blues musicians were imprisoned there, including Bukka White (who wrote "Parchman Farm Blues"),(
 Mose Allison wrote a song called "Parchman Farm", distinct from the earlier blues songs.  It has been covered by Blue Cheer (as "Parchment Farm"), Cactus, Rick Derringer, Georgie Fame, The Kingston Trio, Dead Moon, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, Hot Tuna, and others. 

Over the years there have been a variety of bands and music provided by Parchman – see  - for one of the earlier songs recorded by the inmates of Parchman Farm. That will do for a history of Blues linked to Parchman

Confirmation of my visit to Parchman had been difficult to obtain in the lead up to my travels. This contributed to me forming the belief there was some reluctance on behalf of authorities to my visit. Final formal approval was only granted on the night before the visit was to take place after a personal call to the Superintendent, Mr Earnest Lee, who was very helpful and arranged approval.

As you may have read, there have been a variety of different housing and care models within the prison systems visited on this tour. The differences have been guided by the prison’s history, the history of legal decisions and events that have occurred around those decisions. 

MSP is a very different prison to any others I have visited; its boundaries are not immediately obvious and it initially presents as rural community. (If MSP Parchman Farm was not where it was, there would be no Parchman) Given its geographical isolation, I learn that many staff have accommodation on the actual prison grounds. 

I am greeted at the front gate, where I am asked to leave my car at the car park opposite the front gate. I am then collected and transported to the administrative building where I am warmly greeted by Superintendent Lee and other corrections and health care staff. 

 Mr Lee provided an over view of MSP service:

  • Mississippi State Penitentiary (MSP), also known as Parchman Farm, is the oldest prison and the only prison with a maximum security section for men in the state of Mississippi, USA. 
  • MSP commenced operation 1901, and was constructed largely by prisoners;
  • It is located on about 28 square miles (in the Mississippi Delta region.
  • There is accommodation for 4,840 inmates. Inmates work on the prison farm and in manufacturing workshops. It holds male offenders classified at all custody levels. It also houses the male death row; all male offenders sentenced to death in Mississippi are held in MSP's Unit 29. The death sentence is enacted by lethal injection in a specific unit at the MSP. Other lethal techniques have been used over the years.
  • In 1961, “Freedom Rider”s (civil rights activists ) had been convicted in Jackson (MS) and many were jailed in Parchman.. The first group sent to the farm were 45 male Freedom Riders, 29 blacks and 16 whites. Although most of the Freedom Riders were bailed out after a month; there experience of ten harshness of Parchman gave the Freedom Riders credibility in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Most of MDOC's agricultural enterprise farming activity occurs at MSP. 
  • The road from the front entrance to the back entrance stretches 5.4 miles 
  • The perimeter of the overall Parchman property has no fencing. The prison property is located on flat cleared (by the offenders over the years) farmland of the Mississippi Delta.
  • MSP has been referred to as "a prison without walls" due to the dispersed camps within its property. MSP consists of several prison camps spread out over a large area, called "units." Each unit serves a specific segment of the prison population, and each unit is surrounded by walls with barbed wire. The more secure units have “lethal” electric fencing as well. (Unlike my curiosity with farming electric fences, the childish inner self is not interested in testing it!) 
  • The theory behind the disperse geographical design is to prevent large cohorts of offenders thus minimising the potential for mass rioting – it also provides for a tighter, more supportive and less hostile community arrangement amongst the offenders.
  • There are about 50 different buildings across the MSP; It is actually quite difficult to comprehend the size of the MSP
  • There are approximately 4,500 inmates & 1,100 staff . 
  • The units of particular interest to this tour are: 
  • Unit 31 – currently 90 beds which serves as the unit for inmates with disabilities – these may be aged related, physical or cognitive – but offenders must be able to attend to their own ADL’s
  • & Unit 42, the prison hospital, which has 54 beds and also serves female inmates throughout the MDOC system. The hospital also has a Palliative Care Unit for dying prisoners, in the hospital
  • In 1961 the State of Mississippi incarcerated Freedom Riders in the unit 17. Unit 17's prisoner housing was closed on October 25, 2004. At one time the 56-bed Unit 17 housed the prison's death row.
  • The prison has a Visitation Centre which serves as a point of entry and as a security checkpoint for visitors to MSP. After security screening, visitors depart the visitation centre in buses bound for the specific units
  • Mississippi State Penitentiary permits imprisoned men to engage in conjugal visits with wives; The practice began on an unofficial level around 1918. Originally only African-American men were allowed to participate, as society believed that the sexual drives of black men were stronger than those of white men. Prison authorities believed that if black men were allowed to have sexual intercourse, they would be more productive in the farming industries in the prison. By the 1930s, the authorities had permitted white men to receive conjugal visits. The Parchman conjugal visit program is designed so that all members of the family may interact with a particular prisoner. Mr Lee informed me that conjugal visitation programs, also known as the Extended Family Visit, survive in six states: California, Connecticut, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Washington (state).

Mr Lee’s presentation is candid and revealing, presenting some of the difficulties of the past, (these can be further studied with a basic search on Mississippi Prisons). The open exchange experienced during the presentation and on the tour is at odds with the opinion, I had previously formed regarding the difficulties finalising this tour. Like other Wardens / Superintendents, Mr Lee is very proud of his staff and facility and interested to know what other facilities are doing in the area of custodial care of older inmates. It appears the difficulties in establishing the tour are more about communication gaps and external bureaucracy risk assessment; than a real reluctance to share. 

The short version of all of this, there has been genuine reform in corrections in MSP; – see - it is a lengthy article but gives a great overview of the significant changes that have occurred at Parchman over the last 8 years or so.

Following the  presentation I am transported to Unit 31 and then Unit 42. Each are about half a mile from each other. The drive to the units begins to give you an idea of the scale and geographical dislocation of the MSP. Offenders in green striped pants and white tops are seen, walking around the MSP unattended. There are different coloured uniforms for differently classified offenders; there are different restrictions and different correctional controls for differently classified offenders. Green Stripes are low risk offenders who can be seen working in the community. (I engaged three offenders just the previous day at Greenville who were gardening around the tourist bureau. The discussions I had with them were so similar to discussions you could have with a Wintringham clients...) There are black and white horizontal stripes, all orange, all yellow and all red. The distinction is obvious and helpful for staff to know what custodial risk each offender poses.

On the way to Unit 31 we drive by a cemetery. Discussions turn to end of life car for older offenders. As with other correctional facilities; many older offenders either have no family, or family are unwilling to incur the cost of burial etc. As such, deceased offenders are buried, with a simple service / ceremony in a marked grave on site at Parchman.

Unit 31, the 90 bed disability unit has a registered nurse, a custodial care manager, corrections staff and a LPN (Div 2 Equivalent) staffing the  facility 16 hours a day; after hours, only custodial staff are present. If an offender in unit 31 has care needs that require after hours care, they are transferred to unit 42 (the hospital). Some offenders were known to disguise their needs so they could delay (prevent) the transfer to unit 42. This is not a statement about the care or service in Unit 42, it is more about the older offender considering a move to unit 42 as a “final transfer” and a reluctance to leaving the “family” they have bonded with in Unit 31. (there are obvious parallel’s to a hostel clients behaviour; delaying transfer to high care where they can) 

The unit is fenced by cyclone fencing and barbed, not razor, wire; the gate is controlled by a corrections staff member who sits at a main viewing desk within the unit. The call of “gate” can be heard, which is followed by a look for  a familiar face. Gate is open and a check of ID on entry seems to be the process for this unit. Apart from a brief ID check and confirmation that I was meant to be visiting, this is first real security check that I have encountered on the unfenced prison grounds. Offenders are seen to move relatively freely around the fenced unit. A litter of cats is observed outside the unit in a court yard and I am told they are the offenders / the unit’s pets. 

Inside Unit 31 presents as an aged but well kept, airy, well lit and clean unit, built of besser style brick and single level. Floors are level with no obvious trip hazard, doors are wide. Offenders observed seem to have care needs consistent with what you would wee with a Wintringham low care clients. The facility has very good access to the outside fenced and grassed area; an aged offender can easily feel the sun and a fresh breeze on their face if they so desire. The unit has air conditioning and heating. Showers and toilets are noticed to be accessible. Televisions are allowed and for offenders without a television there is a communal television.  Many beds are height adjustable, some beds are fixed. There is a range of multi bed “wards” and some single bed rooms. 

There is no recreation program or support.

There is a suite of Conjugal rooms in unit 31 as well. If a higher security offender is transferred to unit 31 the custodial conditions are adjusted for that offender. 
Unit 31 also has outpatient’s type area., where offenders health is reviewed and any offender who is in the unit for rehabilitation is assessed for return to their usual unit. 
Meals are delivered to the unit ( a sort of cook chill arrangement) and are served in a communal dining areas with fixed tables and chairs similar to the style I have seen in other correctional facilities. I am told a dietician reviews all meals and special diets are available for offenders who require them.

As has been witnessed in other correctional facilities; offenders who are capable can manage their own “non mood altering and non opiate medications. The latter medications are managed by the nursing staff, who have a disciplined count system for these medications as well as all sharps, including scissors etc.

Unit 31 also has housing for about 6 younger inmates “Camp Supports”. Their key role is one of fire officers for the whole MSP. (they are conveniently housed in Unit 31 as the fire station is close by) The “Camp Supports” also provide “non direct care” to the Unit . Cleaning, meal services and laundry duties are what are observed. The skilled staff indicate the “camp supports” do not do direct care, but questioning of what occurs after hours if one of the offenders needs assistance leads me to believe there may be informal direct care provided. 

On discussion with staff about their care model at Unit 31 and in Unit 42 they indicate they have been to  Angola – Louisiana to gain some improvement ideas. They are very positive about the experience, indicating that Angola have a prisoner carer model (like others I have observed) A quick review on line provides: The Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP, also known as Angola) is a prison farm in Louisiana. It is the largest maximum security prison in the United States with 5,000 offenders and 1,800 staff. It is similar to MSP in that it is located on an 18,000 acre (73 km²) property. Angola is bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River. As of 2012 Burl Cain is the warden. The State of Louisiana's death row for men and the state execution chamber are there. See also:  &

There appears to be some options for transition for older prisoners into the community. Staff reported there were several nursing homes in the country areas that will take some of the “high care” offenders. On further discussion it becomes apparent that offenders, who have previous histories of assault, have few options and further to this offenders who have “low care” needs do not have many options  and some just stay in prison.

Unit 42 is a registered hospital. The security arrangement s to access the hospital are similar to other facilities I have visited: ID, sign it, metal detector and frisk search. Having said that, there is a difference to the approach, staff are warm courteous and friendly  during the security intervention. 

Unit 42 provides a 24 / 7 nursing support to inpatient offenders as well as providing a triage service to otter units. Offenders who become acutely unwell may be transferred to regional hospital. Offenders requiring surgery will also be transferred to a regional hospital.
A comprehensive array of allied health support also operates from the hospital:
Therapies, mental health, medical, dental service, radiology and an in house pharmacist for the Unit. Offenders requiring dialysis are transferred to another regional unit. Female offenders are treated in the hospital and are isolated from male offenders.
Palliative care is provided for offenders in need of this service. Families, including children, are invited into the unit towards end of life care.

Unit 42 is divided into three wings. One wing is for high security offenders who are isolated in cells. The single cells range from a standard single cell room to rooms that are completely bare – for protective isolation. All cells have video surveillance to provide observation of isolated offenders. All offenders who are isolated receive ongoing mental health support and evaluation.

There seems to be a pretty consistent approach to healthcare amongst the USA correctional services visited thus far.  In part this is because there is a legal obligation of services to provide the health care. The legal reasons for providing health care to prisoners were stipulated in a 1976 Supreme Court Estelle v. Gamble decision, in which the Court held that deprivation of health care constituted cruel and unusual punishment;  a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. This interpretation created a de facto right to health care for all persons in custody. The decision also brought forth the concept of "deliberate indifference," a legal definition that prohibits ignoring the plight of prisoners who need care and translates into a mandate to provide all persons in custody with access to medical care and a professional medical opinion. Correctional authorities and health care professionals who infringe this right do so at their peril and may be prosecuted in federal or state courts Further there is an authority that provides governance over care in custody; The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) - The ACLU National Prison Project is dedicated to ensuring USA prisons, jails, and other places of detention comply with the Constitution, domestic law, and international human rights principles.  The ACLU aims to end policies that have given the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. 

A further review of the legislative over lay for health care in Victorian and Australian prisons will now be undertaken as a comparison.

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