I write this from Lola Flowers’ dining room table. Yesterday I travelled to the Mississippi State prison in Parchman, Mississippi to visit Curtis Flowers. The last time I saw Curtis he was pronounced guilty of murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Then they ushered the defendant out of the courtroom.
Curtis didn’t react to the verdict–it was the fourth time it had been pronounced over the past fourteen years. Two other trials ended in juries divided along racial lines.
Lola and Archie Flowers didn’t show much emotion either. They quietly went to the car to unload the special transparent television Curtis used the last time he was a Parchman resident.
But just beneath the surface, the emotion runs deep. I have been corresponding with Curtis since the June, 2010 trial. His faith is strong. Sooner or later, he fully expects to be exonerated. But life on Mississippi’s death row is a struggle at the best of times.
I didn’t see Curtis yesterday. After driving nine hours from Arlington, Texas, I was informed that my name had not been placed on his visiting list. Curtis had been told to send out visitation forms to everyone he wanted to be on his list. I got my form and returned it. But someone at Parchman decided to leave me off the visitation list. So, while Lola Flowers hopped on the visitation bus, I remained in the waiting room.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections follows the same stern logic I frequently run up against in Texas and Louisiana. “Offenders” are regarded as non-citizens who have surrendered the right to human dignity. It is assumed that the folks who come to visit these people fit essentially the same category–hence the harsh “up-against-the-wall” signage that typically greets the families and friends of prison inmates.
The last time I visited Curtis in Leflore County I was subjected to an aggressive frisking. That too is standard procedure.
Prisons face legitimate security issues, of course, and visitors must be made aware of contraband rules. It is the total absence of the usual signs of common courtesy and simple respect that is hard to deal with–the utter lack of grace. Visiting a prisoner in America may be the most humiliating experience the denizens of Middle America can expect to face.
Most self-respecting folk never get within five miles of a prison, of course. A woman in the short visitation line yesterday was a blessed exception. In the course of a brief conversation she told me she was from England. Asked for her social security number, she flashed her passport and asked if that would be sufficient. On the five-mile bus ride to the visitation area, the woman told Lola Flowers that she was in regular correspondence with a number of Parchman death row inmates. “I come over every year for visits,” she explained, “and as soon as I get back to the UK I start saving up for the next trip.”
Hearing that made my day.
While Lola visited with Curtis, I tried to get a feel of the old Parchman plantation, more formally known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary. I skimmed through the Wikipedia article on my Blackberry before heading out on a driving tour. It is difficult to wrap your mind around the sheer immensity of the place. The Parchman plantation covers 18,000 acres. The drive from the front gate to the back gate is over five miles. There is no outer fence demarcating the property. When the Delta forest that once covered the property was cleared in the early 20th century, legislators concluded that an escapee could wander for days without leaving the property. Parchman was so isolated that, once the flat Delta land was cleared of trees, there was nowhere for a man to hide.
I pulled up outside the main entrance to the Mississippi State Penitentiary and pulled out my camera. An officious middle-aged woman in a freshly pressed uniform bustled across Highway 49 shaking her finger at me. “No pictures,” she hollered as she approached.
“Have we got a problem?” I asked.
“You can’t take pictures!” she snapped.
“Why not?” I asked. “I’m not on prison property.”
“Oh, yes you are!” the woman replied brusquely. “The land on both sides of the highway is prison property.”
“Very well,” I said, “but why do you have trouble with me taking a picture.”
“It’s against regulations.”
“It’s against regulations, because . . .?” I said. “I fail to see why me taking a picture would undermine prison security or create a public safety risk.”
“You can’t drive by here and snap a picture any time you want to?” the guard replied vaguely.
“Why can’t I?”
“This is a prison!” she said, as if the statement was self-explanatory.
“And prisons are public property,” I answered, “and I am a member of the public.”
“You can take it up with the superintendent if you want,” she said.
“And where would I find the superintendent?”
“Oh, you’d have to call him up. And even then you’d never speak to the superintendent–only to his secretary.”
I got the impression that, in this woman’s mind, Parchman was a semi-sacred space and the superintendent (his name be praised) was a kind of High Priest.
If you simply must see what the main entrance of the Mississippi State Penitentiary looks like, you can find a nice big picture in the Wiki article.
Like the Angola prison in Louisiana and “the Walls” in southeast Texas, Parchman was originally conceived as a continuation of the antebellum plantation system. Slavery was dead in the 1890s . . . unless you were convicted of a felony. In 1961, hundreds of freedom riders arrived at the bus depot in Jackson, they were immediately arrested and incarcerated. The most suspicious riders were trucked all the way to Parchman where they slaved in the cotton fields along with the other inmates. As I drove the farm roads in and around the Mississippi State Penitentiary (it was impossible to tell if I was on or off prison property) I came across the occasional field of cotton. Some prisoners still do field work, but death row inmates like Curtis Flowers are confined to their tiny cells 23 hours of the day.
Curtis Flowers is currently housed on Parchman’s Unit 32, a euphemism for death row. Thanks to an ACLU lawsuit, Unit 32 will soon be closed down and Curtis will be transferred to Unit 29. This will be the fourth time he has been moved within the Mississippi prison system in the last six months.
Curtis Flowers will not die from lethal injection. That is my firm belief. But first we must learn far more about what happened in Winona, Mississippi than the intentionally inept investigation performed in 1996 has revealed. The truth will gradually emerge, but it will take hundreds of hours of work to make it happen.
Continue to pray for Curtis and his family. They enjoy strong support in Winona and throughout America. It will take more than the grim facade of the Mississippi State Penitentiary to keep these people down.