Prisons in the state of Mississippi have a mythic status as some of the toughest in the nation. Among other facilities, the state’s infamous Parchman Farm entered the national consciousness in the 1940s with the Bukka White song that bears its name, and during the Civil Rights movement, Parchman appeared again as the place where Gov. Ross Barnett sent the Freedom Riders. More recently, the prison played a role in Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, and its history was then featured in a 2018 story on PBS NewsHour.
Amid this difficult, ongoing narrative is Vox Press’s Prison Writes Initiative, “whose goal is to teach Mississippi inmates writing skills to help them tell their stories and lead productive lifestyles.” Recently, the Oxford-based non-profit released its third anthology of writings by incarcerated people, Mississippi Prison Writing. Though their first two anthologies, In Our Own Words and Unit 30, contained works only by men at Parchman, the third “features personal narratives and poetry from several Mississippi incarceration facilities from various prison demographics: inmate veterans, women, youth, men, death row, long-term segregation, elderly and handicapped writers are represented in this unprecedented collection.”
The new anthology contains a selection of writings produced within Prison Writes. Each section begins with the writer’s name and sometimes a headshot of him or her. The sections are of varying lengths, and the authors are a diverse group. Opening with a man named Roger Ewing, whose writings discuss what it means to serve a life-without-parole sentence and what it is like to be Jewish in a Mississippi prison, the writers who follow tell us in their words about having bad days and living in small spaces, experiencing the loss of freedom and desiring education, even – somewhat unexpectedly – remarking on the “Good Things about Prison.” One man Larry Hurt briefly describes a “Parchment Christmas,” yet another writer Lori Griffin lets us know, “Comfort in prison is an oxymoron.” Several among the writers employ a diary/journal style that shares thoughts from daily life, and others, like Trevor Hoskins, choose instead to examine what their lives were outside of the prison walls. Among the two dozen sections are prose works, which are mostly contemplative and descriptive of prison life, as well as poems.
As a writer and editor who has paid particular attention to firsthand stories told by people whose experiences can be ignored or neglected, I found these articulations of beliefs and personal narratives compelling in their directness and sincerity. Unfortunately, myths about incarcerated people, whether derived from the painful experience of being a crime victim or from watching too many police dramas on TV, loom over the public’s understanding of prisons, incarceration, and the lives of inmates. “Tough on crime” rhetoric from the 1980s and ’90s forged a significant narrative that remains as part of the culture of the South: no leniency and lock ’em all up.
I asked the Vox Press’s executive director Louis Bourgeois about Mississippi Prison Writing, and he replied, “The myth, I suppose, is something along the lines that inmates are somehow not-quite-like-us, not-quite-human. This book shows otherwise.” People who’ve never experienced any aspect of incarceration may think of prisons in abstract terms: crime, punishment, etc. I once taught in a men’s facility in central Alabama, and the students who took my course were vibrant people with distinct personalities, eager to participate, to read, and usually to share. In short, when the men became concrete to me, they were quite-like-us, quite-human.
Bryan Stevenson, the founder of Equal Justice Initiative, regularly makes the statement, “We are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Mississippi Prison Writing contains page after page of that “more.” Whatever the common narratives may assume incarcerated people to be, this new book offers readers an opportunity to transcend those common narratives and get a better sense of the people who are described by them.