IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Mississippi prison embodies the failure of mass incarceration

The state's Parchman penitentiary has allowed conditions to become so unsafe that they're unconstitutional, the DOJ reported.


A Department of Justice investigation into the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Farm found unsafe and inhumane conditions at the prison have violated the U.S. Constitution

The DOJ released findings from its two-year probe Wednesday.

"Our investigation uncovered evidence of systemic violations that have generated a violent and unsafe environment for people incarcerated at Parchman," Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who leads the DOJ’s civil rights division, said in a statement.

The DOJ said there's "reasonable cause" to believe conditions and practices at Parchman violate the Eighth and 14th amendments.

Those allegations include failing to provide adequate mental health treatment to incarcerated people, failing to take adequate suicide prevention measures, failing to protect incarcerated people from prison violence, and subjecting people to prolonged isolation and inhumane conditions in solitary confinement. 

Inmates being transported to work in fields near Parchman Prison in Mississippi in 1964.
Inmates being transported to work in fields near Parchman penitentiary in Mississippi in 1964.Robert Elfstrom / Villon Films via Getty Images, file

Sordid conditions and years of neglect have been cited as the cause of a weekslong riot at Parchman that started in 2019, in which several inmates were killed

Now, the DOJ is warning that Mississippi could face a lawsuit if state officials don’t take steps to remedy these failures.

The department opened an investigation into the Mississippi prison system in 2020 following a string of deaths among incarcerated people. The DOJ is continuing to probe three other prisons in the state. But the Parchman findings already undermine Mississippi’s approach to criminal justice.

Mississippi has the third-highest incarceration rate in the country, and despite Black people constituting only about 38 percent of the state population, data from recent years shows more than 60 percent of incarcerated people in the state system are Black. By locking away thousands in decrepit prisons that become breeding grounds for violence, Mississippi embodies the failure of mass incarceration — a criminal justice strategy experts have rightly denounced as a holdover of slavery. (Notably, Parchman has repeatedly been compared to a slave plantation due to its inhumane conditions and high population of Black people.)

Now, Mississippi officials overseeing the state’s prisons have a decision to make: change course or stick to their cruel ways and risk a fight with the federal government.