by Ashley Lucas, Dramaturg

Ashley Lucas is production dramaturg for The Parchman Hour by Mike Wiley. The text of this post contains the dramaturgical notes she wrote for the program of the play. This is Part 1 of a two-part essay — check back next week for Part 2!

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Throughout the American South, Parchman Farm is synonymous with punishment and brutality, as well it should be.

-David M. Oshinsky

Since its establishment in 1901, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, has had a reputation for being one of the bloodiest and most dangerous prisons in the United States.  A former plantation owned by a family named Parchman, the prison’s legacy of farm labor and a mostly black prisoner population remain in place to this day.  Historically, most prisoners at Parchman have worked in the fields, tending the cotton by hand for ten hours a day, six days a week.   Though prisoners now grow vegetables rather than cotton, they still work the same fields that their enslaved ancestors once plowed.  In 2010, the incarcerated workers at Parchman spent 732,326 hours in agricultural labor (Mississippi Department of Corrections Website). Some things don’t change much over time, especially in prison, especially in the South.

Parchman’s notoriety as a place of terror long predates the arrival of the Freedom Riders in 1961.  After the end of the Civil War, much of the South—and Mississippi in particular—persisted without much infrastructure of any kind.  Devastated by the economic and human cost of the war, Mississippians of all racial backgrounds now faced not only the confusion of Reconstruction but also the new legal status of the 400,000 blacks in the state.  White legislators quickly drafted the first Jim Crow laws, and Parchman—the only maximum security men’s facility in Mississippi to this day—became the destination for a great many black men (and some women) who were put to work both on the farm and outside of it as part of the convict lease system.  Most of the major cities in the South were rebuilt during Reconstruction on the backs of prisoners working on chain gangs (a practice which continues today in Arizona).  Both in terms of their monetary worth and their health and safety, blacks had been more valuable as slaves than they were as prisoners.  A slave, like any other piece of livestock, needed to be kept in good working condition if a slave owner wanted to maximize his or her productivity.  A prisoner, however, ceased to be an asset and could be worked to death without any fiscal loss to the state.  The practice of laboring prisoners literally to death was so common that, “Not a single leased convict ever lived long enough to serve a sentence of ten years or more” (Oshinsky, p. 46).

Even those not placed on the chain gangs risked death each day at Parchman.  The field laborers at Parchman are still patrolled by guards on horseback carrying rifles.  Guards punished prisoners with such severe beatings that many died from the lashes of a leather whip known as Black Annie.  Prison administrators and guards also employed the biggest and toughest prisoners to strong arm their peers into submission, even offering guns to some of them to shoot anyone who tried to escape while working in the fields.  The severity of the conditions at Parchman prompted a lawsuit in 1972 in which the Honorable William C. Keady declared the prison “an affront ‘to modern standards of decency.’”   He ruled for an immediate end to many disciplinary practices at Parchman, including,

beating, shooting, administering milk of magnesia, or stripping inmates of their clothes, turning fans on inmates while they are naked and wet, depriving inmates of mattresses, hygienic materials and/or adequate food, handcuffing or otherwise binding inmates to fences, bars, or other fixtures, using a cattle prod to keep inmates standing or moving, or forcing inmates to stand, sit or lie on crates, stumps or otherwise maintain awkward positions for prolonged periods. (Gates v. Collier)

Death and pain—and the fear of those things—remain part of the atmosphere of most prisons, but the vast seclusion of the 18,000 acres of this former plantation, regional efforts to maintain white supremacy after the Civil War, and the inherent racism of the U.S. criminal justice system enabled a culture of perpetual violence to rule Parchman even more strongly than many other prisons in this country.

Mike Wiley’s new play, The Parchman Hour, gives audiences a glimpse of this prison in 1961 when a group of black and white civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders served thirty-nine days on the infamous farm after being arrested in Jackson, Mississippi.  On May 4, 1961, the first Freedom Ride set out from Washington, DC, carrying thirteen men and women on Trailways and Greyhound buses.  These travelers meant to assert the basic right for whites and blacks to sit with one another on a bus, anywhere in the United States.  Their peaceable action met with intense hostility from segregationists.   By the time the Freedom Riders reached Jackson, Mississippi, they had already faced many beatings and murderous mobs.  Under such circumstances, one might be tempted to assume that they were likely to be safer in prison than on these ill-fated buses, but the protestors knew Parchman’s reputation well and had every reason to fear for their lives when they were brought to the legendary farm.  Their ride for freedom ended in incarceration.

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This is Part 1 of a two-part essay by Ashley Lucas. Check back next week for Part 2!