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Parchman Prison Farm (Today)

Jackson, Mississippi

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  Tuesday, February 26

Get On the Bus 2002: Day 5
- Mississippi State Penitentiary (Formerly the Parchman prison farm).
- Drive to Jackson, Mississippi - 132 Miles

- Meeting with Bob Moses at Lanier High School in Jackson Mississippi.
- Meeting with David Dennis, a former Freedom Rider, CORE field secretary, and friend of Bob Moses.

Message from Joe Gonzalez, trip leader:

The day dawned cold and sunny in Cleveland, and we set out for Parchman Prison Farm with our guide Luther Brown. As many of you know, the State of Mississippi imprisoned many Movement activists at Parchman during the 1960s. After lunch in the prison canteen, we drove to Jackson to talk with Bob Moses, father to both Freedom Summer (1964) and the Algebra Project (1982). Following our chat with Mr. Moses, we met David Dennis, director of the Algebra Project's Southern Initiative, following a career as a Freedom Rider and CORE Field Secretary in Mississippi. We spent to the night in Jackson, and rested for another early morning.

Mississippi State Penitentary (Formerly Parchman Prison Farm)

The entrance gate to the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Cameras were not allowed on our tour, where we were able to see Mississippi's state gas chamber and table for lethal injections. The last execution in Mississippi was here in 1985.

We had to leave our cameras and hack saws at the front gate.

Journal entry from Sarah Alloy's journal about Parchman:

... The guards talk to us for a while here, answering questions and discussing procedures. After this we load into a rusty old bus that smells of cigarettes and men and head off to see the farm. We drive past house compounds and other buildings, stopping to see one old inmate, Horace. He comes onto the bus and begins to lecture us about staying away from drugs and alcohol, about staying on the right track. He is old and frail looking, although I have a feeling he is strong underneath the fašade. He tells us of how he has a glass of milk and peanut butter and jelly sandwich every night. He tells us that he has not had alcohol or anything of the sort in years. After he goes back to his house, we ask the guard what Horace, this nice, wise old man, has done to be on "The Farm." After pondering for a moment, the guard looks us over and says, "I suspect ole Horce's here for murder. This is his third or fourth time in." It is at this time we learn that at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, prisioners are not classified by crimes, but by behavior. ...

... The old death chamber itself is a gas chamber. It looks like a giant steel egg, like the kind of thing they would have used on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to scour the ocean floor. It stretches from floor to ceiling, with a large ventilation type pipe screwed in at the top. Inside there is a leather seat and various straps. The front of the door shuts with a giant wheel, reminiscent of an old bank vault mechanism. They no longer use the gas chamber, however. The new form of Capital Punishment in Mississippi is to be lethal injection. I have a strong desire to sit in the gas chamber, a feeling I cannot explain.
They take us into the next room, showing us the new lethal injection table that has yet to be used. It is long and has many straps-across the chest, legs, arms, wrists, ankles and head-and three tubes extend from the table back through the wall behind it. Again I have a strong desire to be strapped onto the table, for empathetic purposes I think. I do not bother to ask if I can actually get on the table, but experience a momentary vision of myself laying there, strapped in, speaking my last words to the melting pot's mix of reporters, victim's families and my family. I feel regret coursing with the chemicals through my veins (would it hurt?) and then darkness as death takes over ...

Excerpt from Alyson Scott's journal on Parchman:
. . . Today has been a long day. We woke up at 7:30 and pretty much have been going until now-and it's 12AM.
We first visited Mississippi State Penitentiary, formerly Parchman Prison Farm, and I found it to be my favorite stop so far on the trip. The complex is immense, spanning over 23,000 acres. The land is farmed by the inmates and they consume the produce they create. We found it to be an incredibly self-sufficient community; they had buildings and teams for everything. The inmates even fix the barbed wire fences and other security equipment when they break.
We then went into the gas chamber, a place I never imagined myself going. It was eerie and disturbing. I felt a sense of dread, like they talk about on TV, as soon as I saw it. People have DIED here-it made me very sad. We then saw the more modern execution chamber set up for lethal injection. Interestingly, it was built by the inmates. Kind of creepy. No one has been executed here yet. We talked to the warden of the prison and a few of the guards, and they told us their opinions of capital punishment. They were all for it, even a lady who was against it when she first started working there. I understand their point of view, especially when they speak of some of the horrible things the inmates have done to children and innocent people in general, but the concept of killing another person makes me queasy.

Excerpt from Sara Stewart's journal on Parchman:
. . . Our next stop was as the death penalty facilities. I'm talking where they actually do the killing. We were inside, touching the gas chamber (no longer used) and the lethal injection table (to be used.) I was very taken aback when Regina spoke out during our discussion about the death penalty. She confessed that her brother was on death row, and that even so she was for the death penalty. I thought that took a great amount of courage to say, especially in front of people that she wasn't necessarily the closest with. I did note that the table looked a bit used, despite what the warden had said about it never being used. When I questioned the guide/guard about it, he casually remarked that the inmates had made it. The inmates do everything around the compound-from fixing the television monitoring system to the electrical work that goes into electric fencing that is used to keep the inmates in, it is all done by prisoners. To me, it was amazing. . . .

Excerpt from Sarah Leonard's journal about Parchman:
. . . . I wished [Horace] could have stayed longer to talk to us. I would have loved to interview him and find out about his life, about why such a sweet, intelligent man was in prison. But I didn't dare ask; no one asked him. After he left to go back to his cooking, someone asked Major Kelly what crime Horace had committed. "He probably killed three or four men," Major Kelly said nonchalantly. He said this was probably the third time Horace had been incarcerated at this penitentiary. It was hard to swallow, the fact that this gentle older man was a murderer. And what really got me was that he had hadn't killed once, but three or four times. I wonder what drives seemingly nice people to murder.
At the Martin Luther King symposium this year I heard Randall Robinson speak, and he talked about how prison is the new slavery. The prisons in the United States are filled with over 50% Black males. Many of them are in prison for things like drugs, yet the White people who traffic the drugs remain free. Many of them come from low-income families, from neighborhoods where crime is a way of life. And it all goes back to slavery, to African Americans being held down so long that when they are finally "equal" they still have such a long way to go to catch up. And without affirmative action and reparations, they will continue to suffer and we will continue to punish them for the wrongs they may commit, even though the root of their problems was our wrong in the first place. We didn't talk about this at Parchman. We visited it because several of the Freedom Riders were held there in the Sixties. But I think that the prison system is one area where we still need to fight for civil rights. This is one of the places where the movement can continue. . . .

Bob Moses

The group speaks with Bob Moses, a famous SNCC leader from the 1960s. Dr. Moses now directs a program focused on teaching poor students algebra, headquartered in Jackson, MS.

Joe speaks with Dr. Moses.

We also got the opportunity to speak with Dr. Moses' daughter.

Excerpt from Steph Fitzwater's journal about Bob Moses:

. . . Wow, those eyes. We had read about and heard about the Bob Moses Stare. To actually experience it, along with simply interacting with him, was absolutely incredible. He insisted we sit in a circle. His body language was wonderful, as he moved to face whomever he was addressing. Then, he would look at you. He would look into your eye and seemingly your soul as well. His gaze was searching, looking to understand you, your question, and everything about you all at once. He would ask you to clarify your question in order to answer it as completely as possible and also in avoiding any vagueness or hidden meanings. He was definitely not a leader in the traditional sense. Rather, he was a teacher. After our interview with him, he had to leave abruptly to meet with a parent. He did not stay to pose for pictures so that he could attend to his obligations as a teacher. Bob Moses, what an entity.
As we left Lanier, we talked to some of the students. As we had entered the building, everyone had been staring at us, but now, we were actually talking with the students. A group had come back to school after hearing that a there were some people in from out of town. They were all genuinely interested and curious, especially with such a racially diverse group as we were. Before then, I'd known that we stuck out and that we were obviously a unique-looking and -seeming group, but only then did it truly sink in. ...

Excerpt from Jenny Nathan's journal about Bob Moses:

. . . I can only describe Bob Moses as perfect. Very soft-spoken, very intense . . . we talked with him in his classroom at Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi where he is a math teacher. Dr. Moses isn't a principal or superintendent-he's a math teacher. When he had to end our visit abruptly to meet with a parent, I didn't mind. He was just doing his job. He has ALWAYS just done what needed to get done, and look at what he has accomplished! And he has an amazing mind, and he relentlessly tries to understand anything you ask him, and when he looks at you, straight in the eye-it's true what Margaret Block said - it's like he's looking right into your soul. In that room with Bob Moses, I felt greatness in a way that I don't know that I ever had. And I didn't get any pictures, but that too seemed right . . . Bob Moses smiling in a photo would almost have demeaned his status-I feel like he's above celebrity status. And there he is, teaching math every day in a high school in Mississippi.

David Dennis

Speaking with David Dennis.

The group poses with Mr. Dennis.

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Excerpt from Rachel Fisher's journal about David Dennis:

. . . After hearing from Bob Moses, we met with Dave Dennis, who is my favorite activist so far. (It sounds so silly to "have a favorite activist," they are not like rockstars or baseball players) He was the perfect balance of a charismatic optimist, and a blunt realist. He told us like it is and like it was back in the day, yet he was one of the few people we've heard from so far that was optimistic about our generation. He was encouraging without being cock-eyed and I really appreciated it. He also talked about educational empowerment AS political empowerment, which made so much sense. He talked about sacrifice. Something that his generation has and ours does not is a sense of sacrifice. As a whole, most of us care most about ourselves and our resumes and living a happy life with a white picket fence, etc. than we do about standing up for what's right. Although some great people do make sacrifices. For example, my friend Diego missed about 30 days of school 2 years ago because he was sitting in the Michigamua tower - something that most people wouldn't do. His grades suffered and it affected his law school choices, but he didn't care because he saw that in the grand scheme of things that his sacrifice was worth it. There is nothing I respect more than that. . . .


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