Male detainees hoeing in a field. (Image: Mississippi room of Archives and background - Mississippi State Penitentiary photograph Collections, PI/PEN/P37.4)

In her memoir guys We Reaped, Mississippi-born writer Jesmyn Ward recalls a Christmas Eve once she was 9-years-old and also woke increase in tears after ~ a nightmare. In the dream, every one of her uncles and also father had been arrested and also sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary — an notorious prison in the Mississippi Delta, regularly referred to as Parchman Farm.

“When i thought around prison, that’s the prison that pertained to mind,” Ward stated in a 2018 interview v PBS News Hour. “I didn’t understand much around it, however I knew it was a place I never wanted to end up. And also the danger that ns would end up there to be a genuine thing, because that me and also for human being that i know and also loved.”


Courtesy of Gloria Williams.

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The danger came to be a reality for Levon Brooks in 1990 as soon as he was arrested and wrongfully judge in Noxubee County, Mississippi. And Ward’s nightmare, the she would shed her uncle to Parchman prison, ended up being reality because that Brooks’ 19-year-old niece, Gloria Williams. Brooks, her favorite uncle, was erroneously accused that raping and also murdering a 3-year-old girl from their neighborhood.

“We knew he was innocent,” Gloria says, “that that couldn’t have done what they said.” Brooks spent 15 year at Parchman before being exonerated. 

“They just wanted anybody,” Brooks’ father, Richard Brooks, said in “The Innocence Files,” a documentary collection on Netflix. His native encapsulate what it means to it is in poor and also black in America — specifically common fact in Mississippi, the poorest and blackest state in the country. Today, black color Mississippians account because that 70% of Parchman’s incarcerated population, while making up 37% of the state’s population.


“By the numbers, by every the main records, right here at the confluence of history, that racism, the poverty, and also economic power, this is what our stays are worth: Nothing.”

Jesmyn Ward

writer of males We Reaped

"The genealogical Roots the Parchman Farm"

Parchman’s background is rooted in black color suffering.

After the polite War, the South’s economy, government, and also infrastructure were left in compete shambles. No hope to gain back the vault economic and social order and also to manage the flexibility of recently emancipated afri Americans, southerly states embraced criminal statutes, collectively known together “Black Codes,” the sought to reproduce the problems of slavery. These regulations are likewise commonly well-known as Jim crow laws.

“The plantation owners, as ideal they could, wanted Blacks to go back to the same place as they had actually been together slaves,” follow to historian David Oshinsky, writer of Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal the Jim crow Justice.

In addition to denying Black civilization the best to vote, serve on juries, and testify against white people, african Americans can be arrested en masse because that minor “offenses” such together vagrancy, mischief, loitering, break curfew, insulting gestures, cruel treatment to animals, keeping firearms, cohabiting through white people, and not carrying proof of employed staff — actions which to be not taken into consideration criminal when done by white people.

In Mississippi, Texas, and also other states, legislatures passed “Pig Laws,” which labeled the steal of a farm pet — or any type of property valued at much more than $10 — “grand larceny,” punishable by 5 years in prison. Such regulations were enforced nearly exclusively against Black people, reinforcing the artificial association in between Blackness and also criminality. “A solitary instance of punishment of white skin - man under these acts has never occurred,” claimed a Tennessee black color convention, “and is no expected.” 

While the 13th Amendment denomination slavery and involuntary servitude, it sculpted out a loophole that allowed for the exploitation that incarcerated people, who were then and also now, disproportionately Black.

The amendment denomination slavery and involuntary, “except together punishment because that crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” detainees — men, women, and also hundreds of children as young as 6 or 7 — were then leased to exclusive farmers and also business owner who’d previously depended upon cheap labor offered by slaves. By 1880 “at least 1 judge in 4 was an adolescent or a kid — a percent that did not diminish end time,” according to Oshinsky.


States profited substantially from the black color Codes and also prisoner leasing system. The number of state detainees in Mississippi increased from 272 in 1874, the year the “Pig Law” to be passed, to 1,072 through 1877.

“They necessary a workforce,” Oshinsky created in Worse 보다 Slavery. “The finest workforce and also the cheapest labor force they can get were convicts who were being arrested for mainly minor offenses and then leased out for $9 a month.”

The mechanism was associated with violence and brutality, a murderous industry thought about “slavery by another name.” In 1882, because that instance, almost 1 in 6 black color prisoners passed away because, unlike under chattel slavery, lessees had tiny incentive to safeguard the stays of prisoners. “Different native chattel slavery, ‘It is come be claimed that sub-lessees convicts because that the purpose of do money the end of them,’ wrote a jail doctor, ‘so naturally, the much less food and clothing used and the an ext labor obtained from your bodies, the much more money in the pockets the the sub-lessee’,” Oshinsky wrote.

Working detainees to literal death was so commonplace the “not a single leased convict ever before lived long enough to offer a sentence the ten years or more,” that wrote.

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Due to move in the political and also economic landscapes, prisoner leasing faded in the beforehand 20th century, however in its place rose Parchman farm in Mississippi, Angola jail in Louisiana, and also hundreds of various other county camps — prisons that supplied racial be oppressive to create a it is provided of compelled labor.