I had been on campus three months when students shot the Emmett Till memorial near the Tallahatchie River. Three white men posted a photo of themselves on social media, armed with assault rifles in front of a bullet-ridden memorial to the fourteen-year-old lynching victim whose murder catalyzed the modern Civil Rights Movement. That summer, while we waited in vain for any form of official rebuke or accountability for the students, I developed and directed the Parchman Oral History Project, a documentary storytelling initiative about incarceration in Mississippi. We recorded the experiences of those formerly criminalized and imprisoned, hoping to catalog the long history of gendered racial terror that Parchman in particular, and prisons more broadly, enacted and embodied. Bearing witness, after all, is a necessary component of liberation. Our focus that summer was a series of mass arrests of students in Mississippi fifty years earlier. One was on our campus.
If you took the walk from the former site of the Confederate statue to Vardaman Hall, you would pass by Fulton Chapel. There and across campus, in 1970, nearly half of the Black students at the university (eighty-nine) were arrested and taken to Parchman after interrupting a concert with the Black Power salute and insisting that their list of twenty-seven demands be taken seriously by the university administration. Some demands were as basic as a minimum wage for workers and hiring Black staff at the student newspaper. Others included the formation of a Black studies program. The FBI had kept them under surveillance since they formed the Black Student Union the previous year. Eight students were ultimately made an example of through expulsion. The rest were placed on ten years of probation to deter further activism.8
During that summer of 2019, as we documented stories of former college and high school students—some as young as thirteen—who had been bussed to Parchman fifty years earlier, 680 Latinx and Indigenous poultry workers were arrested in a series of small rural towns between Jackson and Meridian, Mississippi. It was the biggest single-state ICE raid in US history. In places like Morton, the poultry plants are the largest employer. In places like Tutwiler and Natchez, two to three hours northwest and southwest of Morton, respectively, private prisons are big business. And private prisons stood to gain from the arrests that summer. Less than a month after the raids, Adams County Correctional Center—the private prison in Natchez where many of the imprisoned workers were being held—inked a new five-year contract with ICE. The prison, operated by CoreCivic (formerly CCA), proudly announced that the contract would yield fifty new jobs and boost county revenue by $400,000 a year.9
Back on campus, I was preparing to host an abolitionist conference called Making and UnmakingMass Incarceration (MUMI) at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics in a few months. I received a tip that its namesake, Charles Overby, had been a longtime board member of CoreCivic. Since its establishment in 2001, the same year Overby joined the board, the center has been supported by millions of dollars from the nonprofit dedicated to the First Amendment, the Freedom Forum—where Overby acted as chair and chief executive officer. Meanwhile, he directed the center while acting as a board member of CoreCivic, earning a quarter of a million dollars in salary and stocks annually for his role in the private prison industry.10
Just weeks after the MUMI conference (which was ultimately held off campus), as the new year began, six incarcerated people in Mississippi prisons were killed in a little over a week. By mid-February, eighteen imprisoned people, including a former student of mine, Nora Duckworth, had died. I partnered with Pauline Rogers of the Reaching and Educating for Community Hope (RECH) Foundation in an effort to write to every incarcerated person in the state a letter of love and support. We called it the Mississippi Freedom Letters project. With the help of letter-writing groups across the country, we mailed approximately eight thousand letters before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which only deepened the ongoing crisis inside.11
During the summer of 2020, I worked with other scholars, organizers, and students to launch Study and Struggle, which fights criminalization and incarceration alongside imprisoned Mississippians through political education, mutual aid, and community building. In October 2020, the University rejected a $42,000 grant we received for the project, claiming it “constitutes mostly contemporary, political activism rather than public history work.” More recently, as I wrote this introduction, the university accepted a $1 million grant to create a “Center for Evidence-Based Policing and Reform,” which would “build relationships and share data with policing agencies.” Chancellor Glenn Boyce made the university’s mission clear: “Our flagship university wants to strengthen the work of police forces in our state and beyond.”12
The university and prison are often narrated as disconnected. If they are brought into conversation with one another, the university is positioned as an antidote to the prison. Statistics that demonstrate how incarceration is a manifestation of low levels of formal education are often used to support reproducing the university in prison rather than the abolition of prisons. But these interlocking stories belie the notion that the University of Mississippi and Parchman prison are worlds—or even seventy miles—apart. They share interconnected roles in maintaining white supremacist and genocidal structures of captivity and exploitation.13
As W. E. B. Du Bois deftly laid out in his 1935 classic Black Reconstruction, “Black labor became the foundation stone not only of the Southern social structure, but of Northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a world-wide scale.” Historian Walter Johnson points out that Du Bois’s book “treats the plantations of Mississippi, the counting houses of Manhattan, and the mills of Manchester as differentiated but concomitant components of a single system.” PIC abolition—which takes the unfinished business of Reconstruction as its namesake and reference point—offers us an analysis broad and deep enough to make the necessary points of connection between sites such as the prison and the university. Ruth Wilson Gilmore emphasizes in her essential work, Golden Gulag, that the “apparent marginality [of prisons] is a trick of perspective, because, as every geographer knows, edges are also interfaces.” This means that the system is bigger and more interconnected than is often understood, which can be daunting. But what this means for abolitionist organizing is that you can begin wherever you are, now.14
T. Dionne Bailey
The severe, punitive, exploitative, and cruel nature of mass incarceration runs deep in my southern family and community. I was born and raised in Rome, Georgia, a midsized southern “city” approximately seventy miles north of Atlanta. Growing up in Rome, I can distinctly remember seeing police officers riding up and down the streets daily, parking at the end of the road and surveilling the young kids as we played at our neighborhood playground, and often stopping to ask where we lived, who our parents were, and basically any other question they deemed their right to ask. I understood, even as a child, that my very existence was surveilled. My grandparents and parents taught me that there were certain ways that I must interact with the police. Many people in my family wholeheartedly believed that individuals armed by the state had the power to implement any form of justice that they saw fit. This meant that if there was ever any reason for the police to come into our neighborhood or community, there was a grave fear of how these interactions might turn out.
Amid the reality of overpolicing in my early life, I also experienced personally the serious effects of mass incarceration. Growing up, I remember visiting several close family members at either state or local jails. What I did not grasp as a preteen nor fully understand until I was an adult and in college is that my mother also served several stints inside during the late 1970s and then again in the mid-to-late 1980s, which was when the crack epidemic began ravaging Black and Brown communities. In college and still unaware of the exact circumstances surrounding her incarceration, I learned that she served close to six months inside prior to giving birth to me. This was a total shock. Up until that point, I’d had no idea that my mother had served time. Maybe I was too young to have those types of conversations surrounding punishment, incarceration, and life on the inside. As I sit here now, I think that we could have had a conversation about her incarceration once I was an adult. However, my mother passed away when I was fourteen. What remained sealed was her truth, her story, and her reality of what life was like as a Black woman incarcerated in the South. The truth is, had it not been for a general family conversation regarding my mother’s brother, who is currently incarcerated in a southern federal prison, I may never have learned the redacted version of my mother’s incarceration.
What the short, heartbreaking story of my mother’s incarceration meant for me was that I learned just how prevalent mass incarceration was in Black families, and, in a very real way, I felt the aftereffects, even though I came to the information years after she had passed away. Then, in 2015, the state of Georgia sentenced my sister to serve eighteen to twenty-four months in federal prison. Here, the realities of mass incarceration came full circle and I found myself driving three hours from Mississippi to Alabama to visit my sister every Monday. Soon after, on those trips, I began sending fifteen to twenty books inside and then hosting (off-the-record) weekly book discussions. I would also listen intently while the women shared stories of abuse, mistreatment, terrible medical care, and the horrific injustices they faced daily. I understood that my very presence, along with their eagerness to denounce the system that controlled their bodies, were the seeds of abolition in practice from the inside.
When I moved to Mississippi in the fall of 2004 to attend graduate school at the University of Mississippi, I had no idea that I would soon dedicate much of my life’s work, both inside and outside of the academy, not only to learning about and understanding the history of mass incarceration, but also to using my voice and activist spirit to fight for abolition. In Mississippi, the name Parchman is synonymous with a long history of brutality, injustice, racism, and different forms of retaliatory punishment that the state continues to implement today. After reading two pivotal works on Parchman Penitentiary, one by historian David M. Oshinsky, titled Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, and the second by William Banks Taylor, Down on Parchman Farm: The Great Prison in the Mississippi Delta, I quickly realized that while shedding light on the harsh realities of Parchman and its long history of exploitative, racist, and cruel treatment of those behind its walls, what was clearly missing were the stories and lived experiences of incarcerated Black girls and women housed at Parchman. From its inception in 1905, Black girls and women were continuously housed at Parchman until 1986, when the Mississippi Department of Corrections opened the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility and moved women from Parchman to this facility.15