Blue accent lighting. An oversized, audience-triggered "play button." Prizes. A musical guest. Setting the stage for an honest conversation about mass incarceration and Parchman Penitentiary, Mississippi's infamous farm-prison, the roots of which trace back to the post Civil War prison boom that preyed on African-American freedmen.
Don't Lecture Me
A mash up of variety show, town hall dialogue, and art exhibition, the experimental programming format, Re:frame, emerged as a vehicle to level the playing field for voices from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences and to empower memorable engagement. CAPE staff partnered with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to facilitate rounds of open dialogue. The mics were hot, decentralized through the Mississippi Museum of Art's grand hall, which was filled by young and old, black and white, left and right.
"I’ve done an informal survey of people in this state. What’s it like to be an inmate at Parchman Penitentiary? The response was always, ‘three free meals a day, cable TV, air conditioning. I should probably just quit my job and commit a crime.’
I told the administration this, and ‘wouldn’t you like them to know what it’s really like in here?’ They said, ‘yes we would.’ So I went to twenty-five inmates … and I went at that the same way. ‘Wouldn’t you like the public to know what it’s really like in here?’ They agreed [the public] should know that as well."
- Kim Rushing
photographer and author of Parchman, whose images grounded the conversation
Grab the Mic
It was a hellhole, former Parchman inmates told the crowd, with little in the way of applicable skills training, an ever-present threat of violence, and a grating and dehumanizing pallor that leeched the spirit. Family members of Parchman employees, who had grown up on the outside looking in, recounted a different side of the "farm": the Parchman band; the rodeo; docile prisoners who felt to them like extended family.
The solution to the school-to-prison-pipeline starts in the home, with parents, some said. A young father countered with a question about the role of society in steering disenfranchised young people toward incarceration; he said this while cradling his drowsy infant son.
Others were "pissed off" about the elusive path forward; how to untangle and reform a system that transforms shades-of-gray criminality into rigid and shackled black and white. A man stood up and read a letter that he and the ninety-six inmates at Parchman's Camp 11 had written and signed to the judge in 1973 after a series of brutal beatings over multiple days at the hands of the security forces - the gentleman recalled it had been "a rough week."
There was no single answer; no single truth. Kim Rushing's portraits were continual reminders that prison is not just an abstract issue for discussion, but a real place with real people inside. Together, the group trudged through the messiness indicative of virtually any conversation in the South so heavy with issues of race, class, judgments, and divergent histories.
Musician Alphonso Sanders, Chair of Fine Arts and Director of the B.B. King Recording Studio at Mississippi Valley State University, reinvigorated the room between segments of dialogue with original Parchman-inspired tunes.
"Some people say it's hard getting to the top. But sometimes you have to look down and say, man, how hard is it to get off the bottom? ..."
- Alphonso Sanders
On several occasions, the conversation about life and death was punctuated with communal laughter, like when a businessman and former Parchman inmate remarked:
"I did four years, seven months, two weeks, and three days in that hellhole, and I survived. [He paused.] And I don’t know why I’m here. A buddy of mine had me come pick him up and bring me down here [sic]. I didn’t know what I was coming to.”
At the end of two hours, the first experimental Re:frame program concluded with another solo by Alphonso. The museum was still full. The conversation continued.
Re:frame is an experimental, interdisciplinary programming format engineered by the Center for Art & Public Exchange at the Mississippi Museum of Art that brings together combinations of art, music, and a diversity of voices to facilitate public dialogue about issues of contemporary significance. Re:frame is designed to encourage audiences to confront complex and weighty topics in ways that are empowering and memorable, and to level the playing field for all voices.
Re:frame is sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Third Thursday is sponsored by Hertz Investment Group and Capital City Beverages. Lighting was provided by Davaine Lightning.
CAPE is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Photos by Imani Khayyam.