12 Deaths in Mississippi Tell a Grim Story

The only way to “fix” a problem like the American prison system is to end it.

Comments: 195

  1. Is there no one in national government taking a stand on this cruelty? Has any presidential candidate acknowledged this crisis?

  2. @Nomi Hardly. They have been talking about reforming Rikers Island here in NYC and Mayor DeBlasio has mentioned it but little has been done. Its not popular with voters. Out of sight out of mind. I'll be surprised if there are more than a half dozen comments by the time this section is closed.

  3. @JW I recently learned about Stacey Abram's brother Walter. With his permission, she's shared a fragment of his narrative (which includes imprisonment) and she says, "...every family has a Walter..." I agree with her that protecting and restoring voting rights is vital to making other changes. I hope she becomes someone's running mate.

  4. Oshinsky’s book is incredibly well written and researched - and devastating in its factual description of the cruelty this country has inflicted on African-Americans.

  5. "Where society isolates many of its least-wanted and most vulnerable" but what about most violent?

  6. @Stephen Kurtz "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind"-Mahatma Ghandi

  7. Unless you are going to incarcerate a person for life - and believe me there are people who should be - these people will be getting out at some point. Thus, goal of every prison system should be rehabilitation so as to minimize recidivism. Too many of our fellow citizens believe in the retribution model, but it doesn't work and costs far too much in terms of human misery and money. Most of the time it returns people to society worse than when they went in. While many people criticize systems that are “too easy” on crime, if they succeed in retuning people to society better able to function successfully in that society isn’t that a better outcome?

  8. @T Smith Sadly the best rehab program will fail when it meets the grim reality of life for those with limited education and overpriced housing while living in some marginal neighborhood. Rehab is proper on an individual basis but will fail when faced with confronting the need for rehab of the society we all live in: low-paying jobs, no health care, etc.

  9. @T Smith Fine, let's have nicer prisons. I am conservative on law and order, but have never understood why we feel it is acceptable for male inmates to get raped - indeed, people laugh about it. Problem is, every time a state wants to build a new prison, progressives complain that the money should be going to schools or programs rather than "mass incarceration." You can't have it both ways. Without new and better prisons, the existing ones will be brutal.

  10. @T Smith Prisons remove criminals from society to prevent them from committing further crimes; another important purpose is to deter those who might be contemplating committing crimes. This is yet another article in the NYT’s ongoing efforts to develop sympathy for criminals and make it appear that criminals are actually victims. To set the record straight, victims of crimes are the true victims, the perpetrators—and those who aid, abet and participate in crime with them—are criminals. I hope all the progressive prosecutors--and Democratic Presidential candidates--will give serious thought to what it means to eliminate bail, reduce sentences and allow criminals to run loose in our communities. Who is responsible for post-release crimes committed by those released early? An apology to their future victims will be of small consolation for those who are harmed; and how about compensation and restitution for the actual victims? Early release or release without bail of thousands of criminals is a recipe for increased crime, and increased numbers of victims. (Check federal statistics of recidivism rates—very sobering.) Why doesn't the NYT run a long series of articles about how victims' lives have been harmed--or shattered--or taken--by criminals? Pretty easy to develop sympathy for victims, I should think. Virtually no criminals are forced to commit their crimes; there is such a thing as free will. It's simple: Just don't do the crime if you can't do the time.

  11. Understanding that the conditions the author describes are deplorable, even inhuman, I’m not sure what he thinks the solution should be. Not imprisoning dangerous, violent individuals is not a solution. And while the basic human needs of those people must be met, releasing them into society to commit the same or even worse crimes is untenable.

  12. @DM Williams Have a look at Norway. Their recidivism rate under their much more humane system is far far less than the US. The prisoners are treated with dignity, given meaningful work, no death penalty, max sentence 21 years and yet their crime rate is very low. Treat a person like an animal and they will become one in very short order.

  13. @DM Williams read about norway's system of transformation and low recidivism..

  14. @joan williams I hear this comparison often. It is sorely misguided. I do not mean this dismissively, but I am not surprised you are from Canada (I was expecting either that, Oregon, or San Francisco). Too often, readers from these monochromatic states, who have not seen the devastation of violent crime in our urban centers, think they know the solution. Canada (and Norway) is demographically dissimilar from the United States. Vastly so. What has been implemented in homogeneous Norway would never work here.

  15. As it stands the American prison system is a recipe for recidivism. The fact that any institution can operate as a for profit is a national disgrace. That translates into cutting costs on living conditions to enrich corporate entities There is a great discrepancy between Parchman living conditions and facilities catering to high profile, wealth or white collar criminals. At present negligence by Boeing caused 376 deaths of innocent people, they were quick to blame pilot error knowing the faults of the aircraft and never informed buyers. The CEO resigned with a going away gift of over 62 million. The President, Secretary of Treasury publicly fret over Boeings future, there is no rage over the inconceivable loss of 376 lives for profit. Not one person will be held criminally responsible. I would be curious to read some of the inmates stories from Parchman.

  16. @rhdelp, a truly excellent comment!

  17. It's just painful when you stop to ponder the way we, as humankind, treat one another. This is as old as civilization. How do we change our paradigm to inclusiveness, restoration, and reconciliation? There are trulls dangerous people out there and they aren't especially the ones in the prisons.

  18. "In which case, the only way to “fix” a problem like the American prison system is to end it." Ok. End it. And then what? It's not enough to point out the problem and the history of the problem. A solution might have been in order here, unless the solution is "end it".

  19. @Joshua Schwartz Well, unless you agree on ending it first and starting over, nothing will ever happen.

  20. Thank you, Jamelle. Your insightful reporting is so necessary. We need to stay informed in this Sisyphean struggle to make a better America. I don't mean that the struggle is hopeless, but it is never-ending, as is just about every living endeavor. After all, public health officials work every day to keep epidemics at bay, and we must exercise everyday to maintain fitness, right?

  21. Bouie writes, "[a] prison may or may not be humane, but it will always be dehumanizing. The isolation, the lack of liberty — the separation from family and community — are antithetical to human life. In which case, the only way to 'fix' a problem like the American prison system is to end it." I am an ex-prosecutor who worked for the Innocence and Justice Project in law school, and more recently appeared before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, trying to close a loophole in the malicious prosecution laws responsible for untold thousands of wrongful incarcerations of non-violent offenders (the three judges were having nothing of it, turning their own precedent on its head during oral arguments to justify denying the appeal; I couldn't find the clients to discuss a writ to the Supreme Court, and I fear they are homeless or dead). The women, often of color, who are most frequently subject to such wrongful incarceration are also statistically the most likely to attempt suicide or be victimized in prison. I am therefore deeply concerned by what Bouie writes about. However, I am also haunted by a 9-11 tape I heard while prosecuting serious felonies, and which I can't even describe without triggering the nightmares I fought for weeks the first time I heard it. Just 'end' American prisons? If Bouie had ever heard what I have, he might quit his sweeping prescription in favor of reasonable reforms--like outlawing for-profit prisons.

  22. JM, Thank you for providing some emotional balance here. This article must make victims of violent crimes sick to their stomachs.

  23. I cannot believe that no politician has campaigned on the issue of repealing and replacing the thirteenth amendment. Any one who does so wold have my vote.

  24. @Jack Lemay "Abolishes slavery, and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime" Repeal would mean that slavery could be reestablished in this country. Who are you suggesting would be the slaves? Are you suggesting that all Black people be enslaved?

  25. @Ricki I'm not sure if this is an attempt at trolling, and if it is ha ha, but there's no provision for altering an amendment. The part of the 13th amendment that needs to be replaced is the part referring to "except as a punishment for a crime". If you read the article upon which you're commenting, you will see that there's de facto slavery in Mississippi. Inmates in harsh, inhumane institutions like Parchman, are slaves to a for-profit system of state prisons. The judicial basis for this legal slavery is based upon the "except as a punishment for a crime" part of the thirteenth amendment. If the 13th amendment were repealed today, it wouldn't mark a return to slavery. It would stop the slavery which Mississippi and other states profit from, however. If you're curious about the 13th amendment, or if you don't know what the 13 amendment is, I would suggest you watch the movie 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay.

  26. Train every therapist, clinician and counselor in the most effective trauma treatment: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Processing Therapy, Exposure Therapy, EMDR, Mindful Based Stress Reduction, Neurosequential Model Therapeutics, etc.. Provide every probationer and prisoner with a trauma treatment plan tailored to their needs. Provide medication assisted treatment as an option to addicted people who are soothing their trauma with substances. Make sure every corrections employee having contact with inmates and every educator of children is given the equivalent training for a degree in trauma counseling. Then address the conditions under which trauma thrives. A rat in a bare cage with a spigot of liquid cocaine and water will drink only the cocaine and quickly die. A well fed rat in a clean, warm, interesting, environment with plenty of friends and family will try the liquid cocaine once or twice and then only drink the water. Lesson: It's the conditions that cause the addiction not the substances. Reducing human inequality will improve their conditions and thereby lessen trauma, addiction and crime. The addiction is a stand-in attachment for the failure to establish a secure parental attachment during childhood. The Sacklers knew this. The tech giants know this. The tobacco giants know this. The processed food industry knows this. The gambling industry knows this. We should all know this.

  27. Thank you Mr. Bouie. The madness needs to end. Society must find new ways. Thank you for putting voice to the certainty that some systems at their core are obscene and no amount of reform or tinkering can change that. Humans need to find better ways of dealing with each other. I can tell you from personal experience that even “humane” prisons are inhuman and do little to affect behavioral change. Putting people in cages and offering little if anything in the way of training or compassion does nothing to improve a prisoner or how he relates to society.

  28. Mr. Bouie ably outlines the deplorable issues with southern prisons, but fails to mention that private companies now run a number of these systems. Their model is built for profit and they serve both state and federal governments. The latter often with contracts to house detained immigrants. If our goal is retribution, suffering, and danger, then combining the profit motive with the incarceration of individuals works well. If it is public safety, then it combines the worst with the worst.

  29. In theory our criminal penalty is imprisonment, i.e. confinement and loss of liberty, but our people actually believe that imprisonment is not true punishment. The majority believe that confinement and loss of liberty are not punishment unless the prisoner is forced to live under intolerable conditions and deprived of virtually all civil and human rights. Few want our prisons and warders subjected to scrutiny. Our state and federal governments resist every effort to be held accountable for the conditions within our prisons and voters do not demand accountability.

  30. Source for “the majority”?

  31. Thank you Mr. Bouie. Sad to say, our prisons are the way they are because so many people want them that way. Even many of the people who don't actively want the prisons to be so terrible also don't want to think about what the prisons are like, which amounts to wanting them to be the way they are, just in another fashion.

  32. Jamelle Bouie is back on the retro train after gathering Google historical data to fan the flames of divide. Rather than confront crime head on, he instead focuses on incarceration domains and plays the numbers game as evidence of an agenda, rather than focus on actual behaviors which keep the prisons in Mississippi and elsewhere little more than revolving door playgrounds of violence. The problem is what got the inmates in not what occurs after arrival. To simplify, crime is the problem to remedy, not the prison system which provides accommodations at increasing taxpayer expense.

  33. @Grant Prevention is the ultimate goal but humane treatment and rehabilitation should be the short term change to effect that goal.

  34. @Grant No. You are the one jumping to wrong conclusions. How many people do you know who are serving hard time in prison? Do you know what their crimes were, and if they had legal representation? Do you know the challenges they face inside prison? The prison system in the U.S.A. is thoroughly corrupt. Get to know it before you worry about taxpayer expense, which pads the pockets of the "industry". Unless you have the courage to look, you won't see what is happening.

  35. The discussion we refuse to have is about the purpose of prison. Most people would say that the purpose is simply punishment for a crime, which is true. But today’s prisons are often inhumane and they not only punish, they also train inmates to commit further crimes once they’re released. Shouldn’t we also be working toward preventing future crimes by prisoners? Placing people in brutal, degrading living conditions does nothing but create mean, uncaring people who resent the system. Yes, some have their spirits broken, but others just become more violent. And then when prisoners have served their terms, and paid their debts to society, we keep punishing them by not ensuring that they have skills to earn a living or even to vote in many states. We have created a system that guarantees more and more prisoners to fuel the prison population, much of which is now housed by for-profit prisons that use brutal tactics and no education to control prisoners.

  36. The isolation and lack of liberty may be antithetical to human life, but the prisoners themselves are antithetical to other people’s lives if not confined. Prisons exist for a reason. Prior to the invention of prisons, swift execution or brutal corporal punishment was the rule. Would Mr. Bouie prefer that system, or is he just willing to let the worst among us loose to victimize the rest?

  37. @Z97 Prisoners are human beings, whatever their color. Other countries, and some jurisdictions in this country, provide prisoners with decent conditions, education, palatable food, and protection. They are still responsible for their actions, until they are "let loose," which is a trope if I am not mistaken. The author is to be congratulated for his bravery in writing this essay.

  38. @Z97 Are people who are in prison for personal drug use "antithetical to human life"? How about people in prison for vice crimes, like prostitution? Not all criminals are violent and not all crimes are crimes of violence.

  39. @Z97 Your comment presents a false dichotomy.

  40. The conditions that Jamelle discusses are horrible, but overwhelmingly are occurring for people who were raised poorly. The suggestions for improvement, both by Jamelle and many of the commenters, suggest all the social solutions that may have some impact except for the one that is most important; make sure that children are raised by two parents. Single motherhood and absent fatherhood, in any race or ethnicity, are associated with crime and incarceration by a far greater degree than any other societal disadvantage. If we truly want to reduce the rate of crime and thus the need for incarceration, we should address all the cultural issues that discourage the 2-parent family from existing.

  41. Yes, but you are making it the chicken vs the egg. Start with something concrete like reforming the system. Then also have the parallel discussion that many are afraid to have on other reasons we have so much incarceration. But that is a longer term solution. Yes, some in large high incarceration rate demographics make some really very bad choices. But we also know our current incarceration system creates long term offenders and does not rehabilitate. That needs to be addressed.

  42. @Dr B It would be a perfect world if all children were raised by 2 loving parents. Sadly, the world is not perfect and never has been. (Cue Adam and Eve and their dysfunctional offspring?) Instead we have abusive alcoholic or addicted parents, parents who molest their own children, and not a few unloving control freaks as parents. Sometimes the best option for the children is to remove them from toxic situations. Yet we continue to stigmatize single parents. Many children from two-parent families struggle in life. And there are many examples of children of single parents who have succeeded far beyond what was expected, often thanks to a good educational system. So instead of criticizing single parents for their (often wise) choices, be willing to open your wallet and pay more in taxes to fund good education for all children.

  43. @Wilmington EDTsion I believe that reform is needed, but the expected positive effects will be very minor compared to reversing the trend of single motherhood and absent fatherhood.

  44. We should start talking about what are the alternatives to prison for non-violent crimes. For example, reimbursement for damages, restitution of stolen goods and fines, medical expenses payments, etc. For those cases in which murder or another violent crime was done what would be the penalty? Would prison still exist only for those cases and under what conditions?

  45. Just look to what is done in Europe. The German model is a good one. We really don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Start with one that works elsewhere and tailor it to the US case. I think a majority of Americans will support something sensible since most agree what we have now does not work on any level.

  46. @Minerva I agree. If we reserved prison for violent criminals, our incarceration rate would plummet. There are other means of disincentivizing non-violent crime.

  47. You’ve highlighted the worst. Please do another column on, the best prisons, systems. Give us some potential models. Scandinavian systems? A few decades ago, some prisons were self-sustaining in their gardening, small crafts production. What happened? And what is the solution to gangs, or the violent...and non-violent that seem determined to repeat offenses? As has been noted - finding a job, housing, credit.....anything...with a prison background is nearly impossible; so how to change that? Salaries for guards? So many different problems. Give us solutions, models. Hope?

  48. Non-violent crimes should be treated more leniently; violent crimes should be treated more harshly, and repeated violent crimes should result in the permanent removal from society, subject to parole after a few decades for those who have demonstrated continuous remorse and rehabilitation.

  49. Prison reform and rehabilitation in the US, as this article makes clear, remains elusive while our imprisoned population continues to be greater than any other country in the world (5% of the world population, 25% of the world's imprisoned). The shift to for-profit models seems as bad for treatments as Citizens United is to our politics, do shareholders make better treatment and reform or profits? Meanwhile, the gorilla-in-the-room is mental illness inside of prisons and outside them. How many prisoners are severely mentally disabled and unable to be rehabilitated? Should there be more specialized facilities catering to needs? I think of the same problem within our growing homeless populations. I don't know what the answer is, but the problems just seem to be growing and going in the wrong direction.

  50. It might be pointed out that some states are sending administrators and other staff to Norway for training. They have a better idea. We do well to study what works and what doesn't.

  51. They’re having trouble recruiting guards, especially in the prisons for profit because they want the fewest number of guards at the lowest price to reduce costs and make a profit. Would you go work in dangerous conditions for under $12 hour with not the best benefits?

  52. is “Good riddance”. I don’t know what proportion of inmates in state and federal prisons are guilty of violent crimes but no matter how high this proportion is, they should not be let back onto the streets. If you want to shrink the prison population, first reduce crime rates in targeted communities by social work, easy access to abortion and strict surveillance. Non-violent offenses are a different matter and should be discussed separately.

  53. Frankly, none of this is new. Let’s stop complaint and do something about it. Surely some have by now analyzed what works better in Europe and Scandinavia. Such regions just do not incarcerate, but they also seriously rehabilitate. There are violent offenders in Europe as well. How are the treated? Typically even violent offenders there receive lass harsh sentences than in the US. What is their recidivism rate? Some people are so violent and incorrigible they must be removed....maybe forever. Fine. But that surely is a relatively small portion of the population. Treat it as a public health issue. The so called justice system is not able to enact such reforms on their own. It takes money and commitments that must come at the state and federal levels. It would be instructive if the Times could publish a special edition or supplement that cogently boils down how we should move to model what works outside the US. Clearly our state and federal level legislatures are not capable of doing it, and more editorials that are shallow do not result in any positive movement. We need a plan and cost information. Then we have something real and actionable to talk about.

  54. Thanks for this column, which vividly illustrates a huge problem. Some commenters here have pointed out, rightly, that putting people in prison for nonviolent crimes isn't helpful, ruins their lives, and swells an already too-large incarcerated population. But very thoughtful commentators and researchers have begun to point out that, at last, many fewer people are being sent to prison for such things; that the long-term prison population is at this point composed more of people who have committed more serious crimes. The question then becomes -- what to do? Again, some commentators have advocated a "forgiveness" model -- much shorter terms, or no prison at all, even for violent crimes. (Presumably educational opportunities and rehab will be offered). Given the size of our prison population, the brutality, and the very long sentences we impose -- should we be looking toward the forgiveness model? I think that is what Jamelle Bouie is arguing for here. I'm not sure -- this would be hard for the US to do! --- but as a start I would lean toward shorter sentences.

  55. None of this is a surprise. Many of the he so called good religious people of Mississippi and the U.S. claim to be pro-life. Yet they allow conditions, like the one Mr. Bouie describes, to continue to exist and some even actively support them. These prisons are a terrible example of the worst of our society. Are we no better than this? I have hope that we are moving in the direction of a more humane society but I have my doubts.

  56. @Bernard Waxman Well your problem is that you think anyone incarcerated deserves to be put into what is essentially "Lord of the Flies". Missing from many of the posts is the fact that the convictions are (1) for minor crimes and (2) the result of overcharging confessions. You know, the process by which a laundry list of possible offenses are charged with a confession to one of them being portrayed as there only way to escape a worse fate. Works great. The prosecutor gets a high conviction rate and besides, who cares about the convicted, amirite? The US must be a very dangerous place because we have the world's highest incarceration rate. Why is that?

  57. @uwteacher We really need an edit function. I missed putting /s after Flies.

  58. @uwteacher Not sure what you are referring to in my post. I clearly do not think that anyone who is incarcerated deserved to be. You seem to be responding to something that is the opposite of what I said.

  59. When such opinion writers as Mr Bouie seem to miss entirely, either by choice or by ignorance, is that the inmates did in fact commit crimes that warranted their incarceration. Every individual knows when he or she commits a crime. Every one. Mr Bouie argues that our current prison system is too harsh a punishment for those who have committed crimes. Well, I for one agree with his observations that life inside is a brutal experience unworthy of our country. The problem of course is how to punish those individuals for the crimes they commit. It is fatuous to assert that the problem of prison conditions is part of a racist structure designed to punish innocent people. The problem of course is how to safeguard the people and the communities who are the victims of the individuals who commit their crimes. That is far more important than providing liberties to convicted criminals.

  60. @TDurk What percentage of those who have "committed crimes" do you REALLY think did so? The answer would be: far smaller than you think! You didn't read the article very carefully and apparently haven't been reading the many recent articles about the grotesquely unbalanced incarceration rates between the various racially ethnic/poor and whites in general. "Justice" in the U.S. is basically totally rigged.

  61. @TDurk If you had spent any time in court you would knoew that in most of America today the poor never get a fair trial. Police can charge anyone with anything. Public defenders are so underfunded that they have no choice but to plead guilty. Judges are paid out of court costs imposed on defendants who are convicted. Wealthy people who have the bad luck to get arrested have expensive lawyers and get off. new York where you hail from actually has one of the more effective public defender systems. Spend a little time in court before you assume even half the people in jail are guilty. Here in Florida a vet with classic PTSD was arrested instead of being treated. When he became confused in the booking area he was beaten, sprayed in the face wth pepper spray, shocked continuously for almost a minute, and when he drooled a "spit hood" was placed over his head. He asphyxiated and died. His crime was serving in combat and returning with PTSD. The victims aren't the rich, they are the poor.

  62. @TDurk If you had spent any time in court you would knoew that in most of America today the poor never get a fair trial. Police can charge anyone with anything. Public defenders are so underfunded that they have no choice but to plead guilty. Judges are paid out of court costs imposed on defendants who are convicted. Wealthy people who have the bad luck to get arrested have expensive lawyers and get off. new York where you hail from actually has one of the more effective public defender systems. Spend a little time in court before you assume even half the people in jail are guilty. Here in Florida a vet with classic PTSD was arrested instead of being treated. When he became confused in the booking area he was beaten, sprayed in the face wth pepper spray, shocked continuously for almost a minute, and when he drooled a "spit hood" was placed over his head. He asphyxiated and died. His crime was serving in combat and returning with PTSD. The victims aren't the rich, they are the poor.

  63. Remember a band called Blue Cheer doing a song called Parchment Farm? In case you didn't guess, it was about Parchman.

  64. The conditions mentioned in the article are horrendous. Prison reform is essential. He did not, however, mention a solution to the problem. "the only way to “fix” a problem like the American prison system is to end it." "Stratification of the country" is not the problem. Crime is and must be punished. If criminals are not to be separated from the rest of the population for the protection of the people, what does he suggest we do with them. He rejects prison reform. This article was an exercise in futility.

  65. The author repeated multiple times that separating convicts from society is inherently cruel and called for the end of prisons. Prisons are often, unfortunately, brutal and violent places because they are filled with violent and predatory criminals. Some are sociopaths. But better that they are in there than out here.

  66. @Jared About a third of Finnish inmates are housed in open prison, and Finland's Criminal Sanctions Agency says inmates who go through open prisons are less likely to be arrested again. The re-offending rate drops almost 20 percent. ... There's even an open prison at Helsinki's top tourist attraction, Suomenlinna Island.

  67. @Jared A large majority of the prisoners in American prisons are in for non-violent crimes.

  68. I called Mississippi home for 27 years. This op-ed is but a glimpse into the tragedy that is Mississippi. Phil Bryant, who vacated the governor's office just weeks ago is doing a victory lap across the state when he should be ashamed. Mississippi was in last place in almost every important category like poverty, health care, infant mortality, education, per capita income and prison conditions. After eight years in office, Governor Phil Bryant, failed to budge the needle on the state's most pressing issues. Mississippi lives in the American basement as it has for the past 100 years. The lower middle class, the working poor, the poor and those citizens living in poverty were ignored by the Republican governor and state legislature. All of these issues impact the state prison system. The Mississippi Republicans don't believe prisoners deserve humane treatment. While Governor Bryant is proclaiming victory in his battle to protect the sanctity of life, it's clear that sanctity does not apply to everyone, especially for those who are poor, black and in prison. Shameful.

  69. Again, Mr Bouie, you are spot on in your description and diagnosis of this horrific social ailment. Dehumanization is the point of prison.

  70. The declining crime rate we’ve enjoyed in recent years (although it’s apparently turned around recently in NYC) must be at least partially due to getting violent people off America’s streets. If it takes a place like Parchman to enable grandmothers to walk the streets without fear of being mugged, so be it. Prison is not meant to be a walk on the beach.

  71. “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky America is not only barbaric, it appears to have no interest in becoming more civilized.

  72. I agree and disagree with the author and all the comments made. It should be obvious that we cannot release all the convicts, especially the psychopaths. However, all the non-violent convicts should be released immediately and provided assistance for reintegration into society. The reason the system is broken is because money is the biggest motivator for policies that are made by politicians and others in positions of authority, hence, the prisons for profits. There has never been a time in US history where the socioeconomic gap has been greater between the upper and lower income brackets, and it will continue to increase along with the prison population as long as monetary gain remains the primary factor for policy. This is essentially criminal behavior by those responsible for constructing this reality. Of course this would be impossible to prosecute in our justice system because it is also motivated and manipulated by money. Do we really think OJ Simpson would be walking around today if he did not have the money to spend on the high price lawyers he had monetary access to? Just as OJ had enough money to buy his justice, corporations have enough money to buy their just profits. That is just the way it is and the way it will remain as long as we keep denying the fact that the criminals that are perpetuating the most significant damage to human society are living in luxury outside the same prisons providing that luxury. The irony.

  73. As was often stated some years ago. "If ypu can'y do the time, don't do the crime." Anyone thinking our society should do away with the prison system needs to spend a few days or weeks listening to the evidence presented at trials of violent criminals. Crimes against other persons (rape, murder assault) should be dealt with strongly. Crimes against property (burglary, vandalism) and crimes should be addressed through rehabilitation.

  74. A throw-away culture is what we have become, and it includes not just possessions but also people we deem offensive. If we feel alarmed, scared or angry at behavior, we just throw-away the perpetrators, not giving them another thought. Also given no thought is the logical consequences to our throw-away obsession. Ruined individuals, ruined families, ruined communities. Incarceration is a rot at our national center.

  75. @Chuck Massoud-Tastor Your argument is correct but backwards. The men in prison gave no logical thought to their ruined families or communities by their actions.

  76. Prison, sentencing & bail reform will never happen because advocates are hypocritical. They don't want to deal with the consequences of their legislation. Bond reform is a great example. Bond is about returning defendants to court. Nobody does it at less cost to the state than professional bondsmen. A service to the defendants, the victims, & the court. The innocent exist in the system but the problem is not fixed by the elimination of bond. Chicago tried this. Carjackings (deemed merely 'property crimes) doubled the first year this was attempted. The next year, it doubled again. And the next year, it doubled again. Finally, local officials are starting to admit that cashless bail isn't a good idea. It's one thing to release people on cashless bail when their crime is poverty-related. Driving without insurance, floating checks, stealing diapers. Holding people in jail for not having money when they obviously don't have money is essentially inflicting punishment without a trial. But for all others...then cash-free bail is an idiotic idea. Judges have only two choices: keep a person in jail or release them. In most cases, it's a straightforward decision. But it's those cases in the middle that cause problems. Bail provides a third option. It's for some of those tough decisions when and why bail is appropriate because money or the fear of losing it - is a motivator. We will never have prison reform until the proponents care as much about the victims as they do the incarcerated.

  77. I enjoyed your piece and was not shocked to learn that the incarcerated built their own prison. Signed up for your newsletter and am looking forward to reading it.

  78. The United States has a high incarceration rate because it has a high crime clearance rate. If U.S. law enforcement agencies caught fewer criminals, we wouldn’t need so many prisons. The 2018 statistics show that 62.3% of murders, 52.5% of aggravated assaults, 45.5% of violent crimes, 33.4% of rapes, 30.4% of robberies, 22.4% of arsons, 18.9% of larceny-thefts, 17.6% of property crimes, 13.8% of burglaries 13.8% of mother vehicle thefts, were cleared by arrest. In many countries, residents don’t report most crimes because they think reporting crimes to police is a waste time. If U.S. police stop trying so hard to arrest criminals, many Americans would stop reporting crimes. Both our crime rate and incarceration rate would fall. https://www.statista.com/statistics/194213/crime-clearance-rate-by-type-in-the-us/

  79. Americans have normalized a system of brutality never before seen anywhere in the world. Americans like to imagine that totalitarian governments such as China, Saudi Arabia , North Korea and Egypt present a contrast to the 'freedom' of the US, but no nation anywhere at any time has imprisoned such a large portion of it's population. The system is as massive as it is savagely inhumane. As Mr. Bouie suggests, the system derives directly from slavery with its white slave patrols, state-sanctioned lynching and KKK-enforced Jim Crow, which is why the states that imprison the most people, a disproportionate number of them blacks and other people of color, the same states that impose the most horrible prison conditions, are those in the South. What is most criminal is that every stage of the enterprise has been fully integrated within a for-profit industry. Difficult as it may be for many in the US to accept, if the government stopped warehousing black men or fomenting war throughout the world, the US economy would take a nosedive. The reason that people continually reinforce such unimaginable cruelty is because the US has been putting people in cages for centuries, which is surely why Mr. Bouie's editorial concludes so pessimistically. As long as the white establishment can get away with exercising its power to dehumanize others while turning a profit, it will. A system of white supremacy resting on weapons, war and cages.

  80. When I read a NYT editorial I expect to get a well reasoned point of view about a contemporary social, cultural, political, or economic issue. Instead what we got in this article was an author that was clearly upset about an issue and he emotionally vomited on readers. The portion about the history of Mississippi denying black people educational opportunities, along with virulent job discrimination, and subsequent incarceration for vagrancy charges explains the historical underpinnings of prison system in state. But it's ridiculous to believe or propose that the entire prison system be abolished. Prisons systems exists throughout the world were inmates do not experience the violence at the rate seen in Mississippi. Their system is poorly funded, their correctional officers are poorly paid and trained, and their prisons are poorly managed. Fixing the correctional system in the state of Mississippi should be the focus here.

  81. Mr Bouie I'm committed to reading every op-ed of yours--the level of scholarship and writing is head and shoulders above most others. This issue has disturbed for a while now--I've seen a photo collection of the conditions. The dirty, mean side of America is dirty and mean. How do we go about daily business knowing that this is occurring on a large scale in our country in the 21st century? No doubt some of the prisoners have done things that make it necessary to sequester them from the public. But this treatment of human beings is criminal depravity, and it's institutional. It shames us all.

  82. It is atrocities like these that remind me that no matter the claims of being a "super power" and a "promoter of freedom," around the world, this country in the dark recesses is still very much full of its own evils. You know a country not by how it treats the rich, but the poor, the disenfranchised. Unfortunately, this country has a deplorable record, even in 2020.

  83. The racism of 1900 Mississippi does not explain why prisoners are killing other prisoners in 2020.

  84. The only answer to many prison problems described here (caused by inmates harming each other and deliberately wrecking the building) is complete isolation in indestructible accommodations. Perhaps that should be the norm and people can earn their way out to more pleasant shared accommodations with good behavior.

  85. Twelve prison deaths in Mississippi in the past 30 days.This is terrible! Who knows what is happening in other states. The prison system in the US is bent on blocking, beating and not on education and uplifting. It is true that the prisoners have committed illegal acts, but as we have frequently seen in every prison there are people who have risen high, studied, when released from prison formed companies, got jobs, re-entered into society positively. The Justice Department of the state and also of the US, need to investigate these deaths and provide ways of education, activity, for the prisoners. All prisons inflict cruelty on the African Americans and on other minorities in prison and this will become worse with the coming political sitution.

  86. Best way to end prison violence is for people to be upright, obey the law, work, and stay out of prison in the first place. A novel and too-rarely discussed concept.

  87. @Once From Rome There are thousands in jails across your country waiting just to go to trial, not yet found guilty, and cannot afford bail. Are those people to be subjected to these conditions even before trial?

  88. @Once From Rome Really? And what if it. Where you father, brother, uncle, son? And consider how many are/were incarcerated due to minor and/or trumped-up convictions? And why ignore that the vast majority are/were African Americans?

  89. But for the grace of god go we. At the age of 54 I realize that some people have no options other than to generate income by illegal means. If you cannot get employment that pays enough to support yourself and your children, you basically have no choice,

  90. There are myriad ways to diminish the size of the prison population in Mississippi. Predictably, this author addresses issues from an extremely liberal perspective- blaming the state, racism, police, etc. without addressing personal accountability. How about defendants stop committing heinously violent crimes, including murder? Mississippi has one of the highest crime rates in America, which has the highest crime rate in the first world, by a long shot. The best way to avoid a long prison sentence is to refrain from committing draconian acts of violence. Hong Kong, which is many times the size of NYC, has a handful of murders each year. I do not understand why acting with a modicum ( just not murdering your neighbor) of decency and restraint is a topic this author declines to address. It would go a long way.

  91. @Mark Seems like you didn't read the article. Parchman was set up as a component of the Jim Crow South. So it was. So it remains. Your position is essentially - blame the victim. You are droning on about personal responsibility when the entire game is rigged and the dealer-in-chief (Donald Trump) is a card shark.

  92. @Mark "Death penalty for parking violations!" Steve Martin

  93. I agree. Prison, is the single worst idea humanity has ever come up with- deal justice publicly and make everyone watch. Then we are all responsible for and to, one another.

  94. Don't do something that ends in jail and you don't have to worry.

  95. @Thoughtful Citizen What advice would you offer to Donald Trump or most of his "amigos"?

  96. Extreme cruelty then and noe

  97. No need to think about the outcome, the outcome was desired. This is all part and parcel of Slavery, then the intimation of the Ku Klux Klan, the restrictive laws of Jim Crow and finally the far profit jails. Game, set, match, all done and alive in twenty-first-century America.

  98. With 5% of humans America has 25% of Earth's human prisoners. Although black African Americans are only 13% of Americans they make up 40% of the Americans in prison. Because blacks are persecuted for acting like white European Americans do without any criminal justice consequences. Prison is the carefully carved colored exception to the 13th Amendment's abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude. Prison is not supposed to be 'a cruel and unusual punishment' in violation of the 8th Amendment nor a war crime in violation of the Geneva Convention. 'Just us' from a Richard Pryor comedy routine about what he found when he went to prison looking for justice. See '13th' Ava DuVernay; 'The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness' Michelle Alexander

  99. Certainly there is a wide disparity of punishment when it comes to crimes committed by minorities. I believe they should let all of the prisoners out and treat them like human beings for a minute. Tell me why I should ever visit Mississippi?

  100. I’ve been waiting for leadership on this problem. It is horrendous and no civilized society should tolerate it. Black lives matter or the naacp should suggest actions like collective letter writings or phone calls to the governor and/or the warden that many of us would act on and spread the word. Let’s get to it!

  101. Abolish prison? I love it. And why not? New York has already decriminalized crime. It’s ideas like these that guarantee four more years of DJT. Why would any serious newspaper give column space to this?

  102. @Veritas Nonsense!

  103. I wonder how much Christian values influence our views on prison conditions. We are a “Christian” nation, after all, and prison is supposed to be a type of purgatory.

  104. Prison reform is a must this election year 2020 is cruel the usual punishment if you remember historians the French Revolution started this way they incarcerated their citizens of France. But you have to look at the real reason Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the union. One of the biggest factors is jobs. Most of the people in Mississippi are on life support it's one of the red states. Republicans do not like to share the wealth or they call it trickle-down we should sell it back to the French. Maybe they can do a better job in Stuart's people that they take care of I think there be better than what we are doing as American Mississippi. So the Republicans the best terms they can say lock them up. Since Nixon's in throwing away the keys corrections, you can only see truly he had no need to solve the problem of Mississippi but walked need with the keys to the cells of the inmates. But Jesus Christ our Lord was in's incarcerated in Mississippi how fast do the Samaritan would let them free from jail. As Americans, we all have the responsibility of helping people that are incarcerated it was truly Christians a walk the straight path keys to the heaven.

  105. We are talking about the South where man's inhumanity to man is a way of life. The good news? Climate change is coming and the South will net be spared. There is a silver lining to everything.

  106. @Jeffrey Tierney - that's fine but watch what happens when they "see" the north will be their enduring salvation

  107. Mississippi has always been last in almost everything, and a disgrace to the nation.

  108. @Mike C. Right on most counts. However.... Willliam Faulkner Eudora Welty Natasha Tretheway John Grisham Steve Yarbrough......(how many more) James Meredith Fannie Lou Hamer BB King Jimmie Rodgers Elvis Presley Willie Dixon Mac McAnally.....(How many more) are a few of the thousands of Mississippians whose roots and home state shouldn't be forgotten.

  109. Mr. Sippy-May I add: James Street Leotyne Price Oprah Winfrey Brent Farve DonnaTartt Greg Iles

  110. Simple solution to prison: don’t commit crimes. Prison violence does not arise in consequence of any “system” or because people are deprived of their liberty; it does arise because people are poor or as a consequence of “racism”. It arises because the inmates are criminals. And when you isolate criminals from society - as we must - and deprive them of innocent victims, they will simply prey on each other. There has never been a time when this has not been so. It is certainly proper to advocate for preventing public harm while also taking steps to prevent criminals from committing crimes against one another. But to advocate that we “end” the “prison system” without even suggesting how to protect society from criminals is absurd. Leftists always see criminals not as evil people, but as victims. Hence, the recent efforts by extreme leftists to secure prosecutorial positions based on platforms expressly pledging not to enforce the law. Such proves that leftists simply refuse to learn from history. A lawless society quickly becomes a jungle. The only upside is that the people who suffer most are those foolish enough to elect progressives to office. Prisons will never be nice places, because the people residing there are not nice people.

  111. @Michael, I ask sincerely, if what you say is true then why are some prisons much less violent than others, why do some countries have far less problems with the whole prison thing?

  112. Let the all out? No —they did the crime and must do the time.

  113. What's with the people who live in Mississippi? And I'm not talking about the prisoners.

  114. Maybe Alexander and Trump can fix it they are such an honorable pair . Alexander's office 202-224-4944. Trial without witnesses is a reckless destruction of our constitution and our democracy. Let him know our grandchildren will not appreciate his thoughtless cult vote . All the evidence supported conviction and Bolton's testimony would have provided more facts . It is also pathetic that the Mulvaney ,Pompeo , Perry and others were not held accountable . I must say where are the Sam Donaldson's of our day. The press goes around sticking microphones in these Republican members faces and you let them lie and lie and lie. It makes no darn sense if they are lying stop them and correct with the facts . The House managers and the witnesses proof he was guilty and Mueller report also provided all 4 or 5 times he was guilty of obstruction.

  115. Chief among the reforms that need to occur is the abolition of the for-profit prison industry in the united States. This arrangement is only a few degrees removed from the convict labor abuses, and is a disgrace to America.

  116. A number of years ago, I heard the phrase, “we should only incarcerate the people who could physically harm us, not the ones we are merely afraid of.” Of course, this is a somewhat broad statement, but it speaks to the notion of reducing the size of the prison population, which—I feel—is a major contributing factor to the violence described in the article.

  117. I have come to believe that prison, in its current form, is an unfair punishment. How can we tell society that rape or murder is wrong, when we allow it in prison? Instead of putting inmates to work in fields for pennies, why not give them a good education, if they need it, and high paying jobs in the computer or solar energy sectors? Or they could get a liberal arts education and create art or teach. Once they have served their time, they will have skills to contribute to society. Punishment is overrated. Many times, it is the environment the person has grown up in that is the problem - change the environment.

  118. Recently there have been many articles about men released from prison after many years because their convictions were overturned. Further, the vast majority of persons in jail (as opposed to prison) are supposed to be jailed short term because they have not been convicted of anything. And finally, in theory, it is the courts that are supposed to determine sentencing, not the prisons or prison guards. With these thoughts in mind here are a few questions: Given the high rate of recidivism, how many persons back in prison were innocent the first time around? When did under-educated and under-paid prison/jail guards become the arbiters of life and death instead of the courts? Given the abundance of proof regarding a racist and cruel prison/jail system, how many black and brown men have been murdered by the system since the beginning/end of, say, Jim Crow? It seems to me that starting all over is not a bad idea.

  119. Reports have consistently shown that the answer to problems described in this article is for meaningful rehabilitation to be part of the prison system along with the punishment of loosing one’s freedom. Time spent incarcerated should be spent on helping the prisoners gain insights and skills so they don’t return. Many inmates have cognitive disabilities and mental health problems like PTSD that can be diagnosed and helped. Many have little schooling and few skills. When time has been served, they are dumped back on the street with no support, no money and no way to get a job, leaving them to return to the crimes that put them in jail in the first place just to survive. Yes, some people can not be rehabilitated and some should never be allowed back into civil society. But many can be given the skills to help them rebuild their lives. And, yes, the money spent on meaningful rehabilitation is less than the money spent on revolving door recidivism. Today’s prisoner is tomorrow’s neighbour. It is in everyone’s best interest to support proper prison reform.

  120. We analyze problems, but more often just go with quick fixes. We don't have experts work and trace the problem back to the source as we really don't want to do that hard work due to cost and ego. This Mississippi Prison story fits here. These men as babies and young children don't just select the road that ends at Parchman Farm. If one wanted a solution here, you would want to know about how and why the choices, policies, and decisions made by that child and those around them led that individual to commit a crime and end up in jail or prison. Overtime by examining these stories, commonality would emerge. Early on in that future convicts life, more responsibility would fall on societies institutions to guide that person to better choices. Some would still choose unwisely and time must be served. In that event, society must then step in to ensure that humane and safe prisons exist as that is proper and decent.

  121. This article concludes with the pie-in-the sky solution of ending (not reforming) the American prison system. So, in the author's perfect society, guys like Bernie Madoff and Charles Mansion should be allowed to roam free. Brilliant (sarcasm). Reforms to address overcrowding, safety, counseling services, educational services are imperative, but merely looking at the past and egregious abuses of past and present and then throwing up one's hands and say "just trash the whole system" is not the answer - not unless you want a society where every home is an arsenal.

  122. I can't help but think of the scene in the Hunger Games where the two main antagonists sit down to discuss their conflicting goals (power versus survival). They agree that there was no point in communicating unless each agreed to tell the truth. The same can be said about American political discourse. So let's speak the truth. Many (most?) American institutions, included aspects of the Constitution, were designed for the express purpose of keeping non-whites (of all varieties) in their place. We might not have legal slavery now -- albeit we do have a judicial system designed to ensnare a pool of cheap involuntary labor -- and the active genocide of native Americans has (mostly) ceased but we continue to live with the inevitable consequences of that design. Until that truth becomes generally accepted then there is little point in discussing reform. You can't reform or resolve your way out of a problem when you are in denial about its' root cause.

  123. @curious Neither can you address the underlying issues causing crime by pretending it's just all a conspiracy to ensnare innocent men to make license plates in prison.

  124. @Spiral Architect: there's no need for there to be a conspiracy when that was the open intent all along. And it's pretty hard to explain the general history of the American "judicial" system -- or American history in general -- without positing that intent. Put it this way. A complete section of this nation felt strongly enough about maintaining black people as slaves to fight a war over the issue. People of color were viewed as "valuable property" -- at best. To this day, a substantial number of people maintain that the pro-slavery forces were the "good guys". Do you really believe that political and cultural forces that strong are not going influence the way that institutions like prisons are run to this day?

  125. Victor Hugo addressed these issues in Le Miserables, a story of a man condemned to ten year's hard labor for the crime of stealing bread. In America the response, even today, is often: "If you can't do the time, blah blah blah". We've come far as a species since Hugo, but America seems to stubbornly resist that progress. What the French did is something different. They made stealing bread a crime not punishable by 'time'. That is a civilized solution to a social problem: Hungry people with hungry children have always, and will always, steal bread before they starve. As would we all. To paraphrase another 'criminal', "What do I think of American civilization? I think it would be a good idea". Gandhi

  126. @Sera Find me an inmate currently in state prison solely for "stealing bread" (pastry, not currency) and he can come live at my house. The rest can come live with you.

  127. @Sera If you believe the overworked, triage system of criminal justice is sending people to prison for petty thefts, you have never read the data. This is the myth: the nation's prisons are stuffed full of guys that had a joint or stole a loaf of bread. Educate yourself. Read the data. The bulk of the nation's prison system is populated with people convicted of crimes of violence. That is a statistical fact.

  128. @Thomas: Does the word "Allegory" resonate with you at all? @Spiral: Fully half of the prisoners in America have never harmed another person. Don't rest on statistics alone. Think of why America harbors such an out sized percentage of the world's prisoners. Think of the origins of the "War" on drugs. Think of how many of your "crimes of violence" are for vague charges such as resisting arrest. Think of Eric Garner. Think of Sandra Bland. Think of legislation as a means of oppression. But above all, think, (before you write).

  129. The best way to maintain the level of the current prison system is to limit educational and employment opportunities. Throughout the United States this has proven to be the most effective means to maintain the incarceration rate. The prisons aren’t full of people with degrees. An exception can be made for the educated class that align themselves with people who have no morals or ethics. Interestingly the average cost of keeping a person in jail for a year, about $35,000, is about the same as a year of college. It seems quite clear that our priorities are to incarcerate not educate when school budgets are being cut while spending on prisons have no limits.

  130. End the prison system? No country on earth has done that and no country ever will. What kind of a solution is that? Our problems require honest conversation, not simplistic solutions like doing away with incarceration. The fact of the matter is this: state inmates account for approximately 90% of the nation's prison system. Of those 90% most are incarcerated for violent crime against members of their own community. What America has is a violence problem. Certain communities, in particular, have a pronounced violence problem. Poverty, while a huge contributor, doesn't explain everything. Not all communities operating below the poverty line have the same rates of violent crime. The real solution to America's prison problem is to figure out a way to prevent the behaviors that are landing people in prison.

  131. As a society we lose out for not providing equal education, opportunities, etc to these men. Not as men but to start as children. We lose in the contributions these men could weaved into the fabric of our society. I was raised by a nanny. She grew up on a tobacco farm. Society dictated her work opportunities. How sad. She was a smart woman. Her talents were lost on greater contributions to society than just raising me.

  132. The money spent to incarcerate millions of our fellow citizens should be spent on: Strengthening public education, fair housing, voter enfranchisement efforts, childcare, nutritional support, universal health care, job security & supplemental incomes. There are many ways to allot public funds - the for profit & public prison system should no longer be one of them

  133. I agree with most if not all of what was written about in this article. meaningful, effective, humane prison reform must happen. as a society, we must answer the question: what to do with people who have consistently demonstrated predatory behaviors and how do we not lose our souls dealing with those individuals.

  134. I have been thinking about this very issue a lot because of the death of Kobe Bryant. The news has struggled with the paradox of his life. He changed the landscape and image of professional sports, was a philanthropist and a humanitarian and he also engaged in a sexually aggressive act that was harmful to another person. BUT...had he not been able to employ lawyers, public relations people and image makers, he would have been sentenced to prison. To what end? Is it really beneficial for anyone to be punished for the rest of their life for any crime? Of course I know the, “if it was your daughter” line of thinking and understand the emotion behind that question. Yet, if it were my daughter, I would engage in deeper thinking about how all involved can safely move forward and help humanity.

  135. I am troubled by prison systems like Parchman Farm but don't believe that there will be any serious reform at the facility. I do think that there will be reform on the release of information regarding inmate health and well-being. Many places and people in our country still want places where uppity people can be taught the error of their ways.

  136. If we end the American prison system, what do we do with our criminals? How do we keep them from preying on the innocent? In the days before large-scale prisons (prior to the 19th Century) all major crimes were punished by death, somewhat lesser ones by mutilation, whipping or forced labor, and minor crimes by the stocks or other public humiliation. Does Mr. Bouie want to return to that system?

  137. @Jonathan Katz Look at how most European countries handle crime and prisons. Most of the violence committed by prisoners results from the barbarism of the prison. In the US, 70% of people sent to prison are for non-violent crimes.

  138. Mississippi, as a state, ranks at the bottom of nearly every important metric: health, income, education, quality of life. And, not so coincidentally, remains solidly Republican.

  139. The commenters immediately jumping to the conclusion that article is advocating ending the prison system are using the same black or white thought process that guides a certain political party and mindset on gun rights, abortion, etc. If only they’d apply the same absolutism to the mistakes in their own lives and not just on those around them... I wonder how many serve on a jury and apply the same care and thought into deliberations they would hope a jury of their peers would render on them?

  140. @Ted Pikul The author is advocating the American prison system end as we know it, he didn’t say all prisons. Projection on my part? Perhaps. Having been on a jury that sent two black men to prison for a bunch of years, but not on all charges (some obviously exaggerated and unproven), we conducted ourselves with the thought of would we want a jury to rubber stamp guilty verdicts if we were in the defendants’ chairs. They were bad dudes, but appropriately convicted, -justice- served. Having seen “throw the book” zero-tolerance relatives suddenly whine for mercy over their kid’s (significant) transgressions goes to my malleable absolutism observations. Thank you for highlighting my point

  141. Prison reforms are necessary and urgent however, I do not think to end the prison system is the answer. To quote Malcolm X ”I am not saying there shouldn't be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms...” We should all keep his words in mind when trying to create a more beneficial system.

  142. Thanks for the article. This is scandalous, a shame for all of us, who live in the United States. Either we should decrease the number of people we incarcerate (and btw, on this, thank you Mr. Trump, who did more for the cause than many of his self-avowed liberal predecessors), or we devote more resources to a decent, 100%-public-sector operated, carceral system; most probably: both (although the first prong, being much easier to action, should be prioritized).

  143. The way to make ours prisons better is to make them better, not eliminate them. Contrary to some of the comments, the overwhelming majority of state prisoners are there for violent offenses. Most are also repeat offenders. No one goes to state prison for smoking marijuana or “driving while black” (as one commenter asserted). To get to a prison like those described you have to be convicted of murder, rape, assault, robbery or similar serious offenses. Sometimes multiple times. Also, for profit prisons house a small percentage of convicts. Most state facilities are run by the state and personnel are unionized state employees (much like police). So by all means, make the prisons nicer and safer and focus more on rehabilitation. But keep the violent felons there.

  144. The sad sad truth is that if the Mississippi prison system were a horse track, and the same number of horses had died since the new year, we would see a national outcry heard all the way to heaven. What is it about our Human Condition which allows us to ignore the pain and suffering of others?

  145. "Separated from freedom"? You make it sound like they were kidnapped into prison.

  146. Being the victim of crime is dehumanizing too.

  147. Highly recommended is Albert Woodfox's book, "Solitude".

  148. Oh! Mississippi!!! The state's prison system also practiced the convict lease system. In 1950 my father bought a business in North Mississippi and as an after thought to the transaction the seller stated Julius came with the business. Julius had been a leased convict or a convict bought out of prison. He had stories of the state's criminal justice system such as picking cotton. When ask how much he picked per day Julius replied it didn't matter because "they" beat you if you picked less and "they" beat you if you picked what was required. In other words the system then and now is a form of control by the "White" rulers over the "Black" population. It appears not much has changed in my birth state.

  149. What a great article. Thank you.

  150. “ prisons are a place of confinement, where society isolates many of its least-wanted and most vulnerable members.” No. Prisons are for criminals who victimize law-abiding citizens. Reframing convicted criminals as “vulnerable” is Orwellian.

  151. @JDK: Did you read the article? Many of those imprisoned didn't victimize anybody. They were (and are) placed their for trivial -- or even trumped up -- offenses. Face it -- under at least some American legal systems "convicted criminal" often means "an unlucky black male who is a politically convenient source of cheap and involuntary labor". And nobody should be OK with that.

  152. In the highest crime cities, criminals act with impunity, despite leftists attempts to push the mass incarceration/throw away the key narrative. Chicago for example, has a clearance rate of 15% for killings and 6% for shootings. That means the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are escaping arrest and conviction and remain free.

  153. it's prison, not summer camp. while prisoners should have a physically safe environment, it's not meant to be a fun place.

  154. How in the world is the mortality rate for Mississippi prisons in the 1880’s possibly relevant to the year 2020. Good Lord.

  155. For everyone getting upset about Mr. Bouie’s crazy position on incarceration, please step back and consider his function as a columnist. He basically exists to generate hate-clicks. He may not realize this himself, but the fact of the matter is that most people are offended, turned off, and turned against the left by writers like him. This does 2 things for media outlets like the Times. First, it helps them shore up their own dedicated fringe subscribers. Secondly, though, it pushes the left ever farther away from the mainstream and from political success, which is right where the media, activist, and entertainment complex wants it. When the left is out of power, and mentally insecure, it drives even more of them into the arms of the bad-take-generators. The same thing happens on the right. The more out of power and untouchable the political wing is, the more the media and entertainment and activist mill thrives.

  156. I have to say that many of the comments to this article seem to be troll comments. It seems that most of these trolls did not either read the article or failed to understand its content. It traces the history of Parchman and extraordinary resources devoted in the US to incarceration to racism rooted in the slave history of this country. When the plantocracy lost the war they then went on to win the peace. By that I mean the violent overthrow of Reconstruction through organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the re-enslavement of previously emanicpated slaves through a system of arresting people on spurious charges and "renting" the prisoners out to plantations and logging camps as cheap labor. Parchman was part of that scheme. To natter on about personal responsibility is a shameful diversion. The real problem is the system. We live in an extremely violent system where people are treated like expendable objects and racism is the ideology that justifies that behavior. Objects, by contrast, specifically money, rank much higher than considerations related to the proper treatment of our fellow human beings. The shocking death figures in Mississippi deserve condemnation not excuses. The current setup is nothing less than a rigged game. Politicians do the bidding of their paymasters. Citizens United was a travesty. Blaming the victims of a rigged game is both immoral and preposterous. What's next? Chain gangs? A further expansion of the prison economy?

  157. What many commenters fail to understand is that the American prison system is a direct continuation of the antebellum slavery system. Check the date most prisons were created, almost all of them were created after slavery was abolished. Was there no murder before slavery? Was there no crime before slavery? I guess they just blamed it on a slave. Now listen to the pro slavery arguments, "we can't let the slaves go, some are violent and belong in slavery" We need to attempt to rehabilitate people, not throw anyone away like trash. Maybe we start with a new view on crime, if non-violent seek monetary reconciliation. For violent crimes probation, heavy on counseling, education requirements, etc. not a list of never ending fees, defunded, and dehumanizing. Meanwhile, we need to understand the family situations, the problems, etc. that creates a monster. No one is born a monster, it takes a brutal system (usually years of grinding poverty) to create one.

  158. I am library director in a small rural town where our county jail is located. Population less than 5K. From May 2018 – February 2019, I worked with a local community college teacher who specialized in helping inmates get their GED (General Education Development) diploma. I wanted to work with her and we decided rather than a book club we would have a “history” club. I provided the “Hamilton an American Musical” accompanied with Ron Chernow’s book “Hamilton”. I prepared lesson plans that would last about 45 minutes leaving 15 minutes for discussion. I had them write essays about themselves and the impact of what they were learning each week. What they wrote stunned me and the GED teacher. I shared their words with a closed Hamilton group on Facebook and asked that the other members share words of encouragement. I then shared my group’s essays with the students. I read them out loud and left copies to take with them outside the classroom. I am in tears as I write this. They realized that people all over the world cared about them. It made a difference. Of the 40 or so different students 5 of them have come to the library to fill out resumes and job applications. I hardly recognized them because they were smiling and excited about being free. The others I am not sure. Most were being held before being transferred to prison. The GED teacher retired in Feb. 2019. The college found someone to replace her a few weeks ago. I hope to resume my “history” program soon.

  159. Prisons in the South are basically state sanctioned exterminations of black and brown people.

  160. @R4L: and even better, they make for-profit prison shareholders richer while they do it. Talk about a win-win!

  161. Mr Bouie, Your piece starts with a real, current problem: cruel treatment and deaths in the Mississippi penal system. I think we all agree that these are tragedies and we'd like this to happen less often or not at all. Your main topic has nothing at all to do with skin color. Yet, you launch next into historical racist persecution and attempt to tie this to the present. Yes, this gets clicks, and we should always respect history, but emphasizing historical persecution ad nauseum becomes a form of racist victimhood, which is itself a form of racism. Racism begets more racism. Do you secretly want to support recruiting patterns of "white" supremacist groups? … then, keep doing what you're doing. The prison problem is real. Racist persecution of "black" people is (99.9%) historical. If you continue to confuse the two, you'll just make more hate. Please don't.

  162. The United States consists of 2 different worlds. And I mean that quite seriously. On planet A, wealthy individuals quite literally get away with murder. Ethan Couch murdered 4 people, and didn’t even have to go to jail. Instead, he got to spend a few months at a luxury detox and rehab center. Then, he violated the conditions of his parole and got to flee to Mexico with his wealthy mom. After he was jailed in the United States he only spent 2 years in jail. On planet B, homeless black woman Tanya McDowell went to prison, PRISON, for FIVE YEARS, for having the audacity of enrolling her son in a better school. Wealthy people in this country are completely detached from reality. They’re like Marie Antoinette. They live their entire existences in private housing complexes, all go to the same schools, hang out in the same private country clubs, etc. It creates an impenetrable bubble, and leads them to become extremely dismissive of anyone who tells them that things are not okay in this country. “I’m doing great, therefore everyone else must be either doing great or have the opportunity to do great too” is what they tell themselves. 6 years ago, Amazon gazillionaire Nick Hanauer warned that this perpetuation of wealth inequality was going to lead to societal instability. He’s not wrong.

  163. America is not a Christian nation. That's the real root. These prisons are profitable for someone. Just think how hopeless was the man who died and lay there so long his face was flattened...... Absolutely uncared for. Money is being made here, by intentionally allowing this type of degradation in our pretty pretty America. Our gospel: 'I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' America doesn't give hope to the hopeless anymore. Poor families at our shores? They receive no mercy. 100 years ago, debarking at Ellis Island, they would have been uncontroversial. Now we put them in caged camps like criminals, not people allowed to try. The poor and sick who need medical care? America shuts down clinics and denies benefits for 'widows and orphans'. Not every reader is Christian, but we like to think of ourselves as having generous 'Judeo-Christian values' something something. Jesus fed the 5,000 on a day of teaching in the countryside. He noticed the attendees were hungry. He did not ask for a show of hands, to exclude those who were unemployed but able bodied, nor women who looked 'nasty', nor the immigrant among them. The power of love, forgiveness and inclusion, from the Prince of Peace Himself, would truly be American Exceptionalism. It's also on that silly Statue of Liberty. Alas, we really like white supremacy bestest of all.

  164. I am so glad that my mom left that cotton picking state in 1939..thank you Jesus.

  165. Abolishing prisons would be even more insane than abolishing mental asylums, also advocated for by leftist progressives. And look at what the result of that was - a ballooning crisis of homelessness. Because no, despite what Foucault wrote, there are people who really are insane, or struggling with mental illness, whatever you want to call it, and who can't be left to run amok in free society. And yes, there are criminals who belong in prison. If you kill someone, if you rape someone, if you threaten people with guns while robbing them, you can't be trusted in free society. And the US is nothing like Scandinavia, so comparisons are moot. In 2019 there were 25 murders in Norway. In the US there were 15,500. Do the math.

  166. The prison systems of the heart of Dixie, Alabama, Mississippi reflects the heartlessness of the land of Dixie.

  167. Maybe the high murder rate in this prison is because this prison is full of murderers?

  168. What about reducing the prison population by PREVENTION which starts in universal pre-K. Fund Head Start, it works. Give aid to poor families to prevent family poverty and homelessness. Above all else have school counselors always available. In middle school and high school have enough counselors to help students bridge to next phase in becoming an adult. With programs like these, we will be saving a tremendous amount of money with a reduced prison population. OK, now what about the real world? Trump is in and here come the white supremacists. I actually would advise a young family to leave this country because nothing is going to change for the good for a long time. Every problem that happens to a young family is not addressed in our government agenda. Modern westernized countries all have plans that help families with problems that come up because they realize a successful country is composed of successful adults whose needs are met. What do we do here when those problems happen-- as little as possible because we might need to tax the 1%. So sorry. Trump has put us in the banana republic category now.

  169. @sheila "a successful country is composed of successful adults whose needs are met. " Nope. A successful country is composed of successful adults who meet their own needs, and those of their children. Society here, vis a vis the welfare of children, was at its pinnacle when no one had ever heard of pre-K - when kindergarten itself was only offer occasionally -- and when "early childhood education" was handled by the people most capable of providing it: parents. Government is awful at solving problems, but it excels are creating them. The less of it we have, the better off all of us will be.

  170. @Michael I agree with "the people most capable of providing it: parents." But that is unattainable in certain segments of society -- where both parents must work full-time to afford a roof and food, for example. An overly capitalist economy will widen the gap between the rich and the poor. When everything - including education and health care - is subject to the sole motivation of profit, there is no way for the poor to subsist, let alone "level up" in society. Our government is the only entity or framework I can think of that can render the service of wealth distribution, education, and health care outside of the realm profit-seeking. In the "pinnacle" of society you mentioned, "government solution" was very present, funding public education and jobs.

  171. @Michael: "Society here, vis a vis the welfare of children, was at its pinnacle when no one had ever heard of pre-K - when kindergarten itself was only offer occasionally -- and when "early childhood education" was handled by the people most capable of providing it: parents." No. This wasn't the pinnacle. It merely seemed that way -- to some -- because those who failed or whose failure was ensured by others who wanted to protect their privilege and/or entitlement were never heard from. And a lot of people worked very hard at the time to make sure that they weren't. It's always easier pretend that a problem doesn't exist -- or to blame the victim which is effectively the same thing -- than to address the problem. And it makes it a heck of a lot easier for those enjoying privilege and entitlement to feel good about themselves while doing so.

  172. Mississippi, in my opinion has always been such a backward state. High levels of poverty, low levels of education, higher levels of obesity, low level incomes...one can go on and on why they have high incarceration rates. Mississippi to this day is hanging on to the Jim Crow era that most of the South is retreating from. And yet they consider themselves part of the bible-belt....go figure.

  173. There are two separate issues here, which I think aren’t clearly explained as separate. One is the dehumanizing conditions of many prisons. For a civilized society to punish people by imprisoning them then deny their humanity by allowing uncivilized conditions to prevail, is clearly immoral. That needs to change. The other issue is the degree to which justice is administered fairly. If any sub-population of America faces increased likelihood of imprisonment simply because of the color of their skin (or country of origin, or economic condition, or any of a number of social prejudices), then measures to correct that imbalance are not just a good idea, but a moral imperative. Justice must be blind to be fair.

  174. There are definitely people who must be separated from the rest of society. Whatever circumstances made them, there are violent, serial predators who cannot function in free society without harming others. For them, the best solution is clearly humane separation from a society in which they are unable to participate. That said, I am well aware of the societal structures that create opportunistic or survivalist crimes and I agree that those must be changed. Our current corrections systems do little to reform offenders and horrifically dehumanize people. One solution would be to disallow the use of prisoners for labor at less than market rate for the work performed and require compliance with minimum wage, as well as eliminate prohibitions on licensing or hire in fields in which individuals have been trained in prison upon release. In addition, eliminating for-profit prisons would result in a reduction of incarceration. If there is no profit in keeping people imprisoned, I guarantee the prison population will be reduced dramatically.

  175. In the opening scene of "The Godfather," Don Corleone receives a visit from a father whose daughter was savagely beaten by two young men. When the perpetrators were acquitted, the father said to his wife, "For justice, we must go to Don Corleone." End the prison system and release violent criminals, and ordinary citizens will go to a real-life Don Corleone for protection and/or vengeance for slain loved ones. What could possibly go wrong? I sympathize with Mr. Bouie's outrage at the horrific conditions in the Mississippi prison, but he does not appear to have thought through the consequences of his proposal. Reform, yes; abolish, no.

  176. The New York Times needs more news stores and op-eds such as this one. Serious research leading us to a more in-depth understanding of societal issues that may be very remote from our day to day life, that we could not possibly comprehend. I agree that this articles boils down to two distinct aspects of the justice system: in-humane emprisonnent turning minor offenders into violent predators, and, unfair justice. But it is still an excellent article.

  177. The authorities responsible for the conditions at Parchman, and other prisons like it, should serve time in those prisons. But end the prison system altogether? Really?

  178. @Green Tea I think what is not said is that prison as prison would be replaced with such things as drug rehabilitation and mental health intervention. A large number of prison inmates landed there due to drug addiction or mental illness.

  179. @Green Tea No one's calling to end the prison system altogether. Clearly, some people need to be kept away from society, especially the violent ones. However, there is something seriously wrong when the US has by far the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Russia and China both imprison people at a lower rate. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/uk/06/prisons/html/nn2page1.stm The US prison system itself clearly needs to be massively improved, but it's just as important that changes to the US social system get underway now. way now.

  180. To understand and tackle a problem like the prison system in Mississippi, it’s important to look not only at the prison system itself, but also at the surrounding conditions that give rise to crime and violence in the state. Currently, the public schools in Mississippi are under-funded and under-resourced, and the children whose families cannot afford private schools are stuck in the public system and often feel hopeless about it. In Jackson, the state capital, the public schools are almost entirely African-American while the elite private schools are almost entirely white. Then there is the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid, leaving tens of thousands without adequate healthcare. And finally, even with a large population of African-Americans in the state (over one third), the state’s leadership remains largely white, male, straight, and Republican, and there is little interest among this group for any kind of educational, healthcare, and prison reform. They retain power through through clever voter suppression methods, ensuring that a modern version of apartheid remains firmly in place, made complete by their refusal to change the state flag with its nod to the confederacy. As long as the current brand of Republicans hold onto power in Mississippi, I don’t see anything changing. It will take either a new brand of Republican or a switch to Democratic leadership for this system of oppression to change. Neither is likely anytime soon.

  181. @M Agreed. It is a cyclic societal problem that persists throughout Mississippi and other parts of the country, but especially the South due to the historic post slavery populations and following Jim Crow era. Poverty, lack of education and boredom seem to be key elements. In the Parchman example, many if not most whites considered themselves advanced is like Vardaman, they merely did not believe in open physical/verbal mistreatment. Yet as you point out the vast majority are social segregationists. Anyone travelling to the state should not miss the Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. The story is made extremely clear and undeniable to anyone who take it in. Poverty combined with low education and the siphoning off of education funds by the whites who make up the state and community governments means any improvements are on a glacial pace. Progressives, much in the minority and angry that it can't be changed quicker and even well meaning Conservatives think that folks are trying to change too much too quickly. I went to a "Seg Academy" for a couple of years,('73-'75) and there were ZERO blacks in the entire school. (as designed) and even today, there are only few blacks in those academies. SO, what do the new Governor and legislature of Mississippi support and promote? That's right "Vouchers" for school choice. It's a long road we're on.

  182. @M, The Trump campaign slogan should more accurately have been: Make America Mississippi Again .

  183. @M My understanding is that the state of Mississippi is at the bottom in performance in almost all governance programs - income, eduction, health - I could go on but it is still an ante-bellum state for all practical purposes - so it is not surprising the penal system is abysmal and a form of racist repression.

  184. This is an extremely well-written article. Most importantly, it warns us against the liberal impulse to just reform these prisons by reminding us that we need to dismantle the brutal and racist logic on which the entire system is based. Just as no-one suggested reforming Bergen-Belsen after 1945, no serious person should talk about "reforming" places like Parchman. The current incarceration system produces crime instead of reducing it. Country's like the Netherlands have already semi-abolished prisons with great success. I wish we had political leaders in this country that could initiated a debate on how to move forward instead of merely offering conservative or liberal talking points.

  185. @David Who in their right mind would consider recommending to reform a concentration camp ? How is that remotely related to a modern American prison? The problem with article like this is that they are written entirely to generate sympathy for the prisoners. While some of it is warranted, let’s not be fooled that some of these are really, really dangerous people incapable of living amongst civil people. Missing here is what where the circumstances in each of these cases. We might learn more if we were given some level of detail.

  186. @Norville T. Johnstone, Thank you. There is no lack of concern and sympathy for criminals and the communities they victimize. But society has valid interests and inverting victimhood is sophistry.

  187. @David Why would you even mention a concentration camp in the same breath as a prison?

  188. Despite the well publicized and shameful examples of convictions of innocent men, most of the inmates of Mississippi's prisons, or any other states's prisons are people who voluntarily committed crimes. The best way to reduce the prison population is for people to stop being criminals. However, given that there will always be those who feel that they have a right to the life or property of others, crime will always be with us. That being the case, we will always need prisons, so Mr Bouie's suggestion that the prison system needs to be ended will never come to pass; and prison reform will be the only way to make it more just.

  189. Are you aware that most prisoners come from dysfunctional backgrounds, often the result of poverty. Maybe you should figure out why the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and the middle class are heading downwards.

  190. @Margaret The vast majority of people in poverty do not lead lives of crime; therefore I still hold personalty morality, or its lack, more to blame for crime than poverty.

  191. Yet another litany of historical grievances posing as a discussion of a contemporary issue, concerning which, no arguments are presented nor solutions proffered. The template for this sort of thing is of course Te Nehisi Coates' "Case for Reparations" which appeared in the Atlantic some years ago. It should go without saying that writing well and having something to say or contribute are two different things entirely.