By Alan Bean
A few weeks ago, I visited Curtis Flowers in Parchman prison. I was in the midst of a nine-day civil rights tour, but I had arranged to meet Lola Flowers, Curtis’ mother, on a Tuesday morning. Rain clouds dominated the sky as I pulled into the parking lot at the visitors’ station but the rain was holding off. Lola and I entered the facility making sure to carry nothing with us but a driver’s license and our car keys.
The last time I had tried to visit Curtis I was refused entry–someone had forgotten to add my name to his visitation list; this time everything went smoothly. After going through the standard security screening (just a little bit more intrusive than what you encounter at the airport), we climbed into a mini-van with other visitors and drove deep into the massive expanse of Parchman prison.
Parchman had been created in 1903 Under the leadership of Governor James Vardman, the man they called “the White Chief”. It was essentially an old-time cotton plantation set on 20,000 acres in the Mississippi Delta. No walls surrounded the plantation because there was literally nowhere to run. Flat Delta cotton fields stretched for miles in every direction. It was Vardman’s intention that Parchman Farm be run “like an efficient slave plantation,” so as to equip young black men with the “proper discipline, strong work habits,and respect for white authority.”
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Mississippi’s notorious Unit 32 was essentially closed down in recent years thanks to the Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union. The Unit was so unremittingly awful in every respect that officials with the Mississippi Department of Corrections (led by Commissioner of Corrections Christopher Epps) and attorneys representing MDOC cooperated with ACLU lawyers to enact sweeping reforms. I encourage you to read the amazing story in all its gory detail.
With the exception of Curtis Flowers, all the inmates receiving visitors on this day were white. As we waited for the prisoners to be brought in, I chatted with the father of a man awaiting execution for murder. The man had suffered from paranoid delusions for years, the father told me, but mental health services in Mississippi were so limited that they had never get him any help. Now it was too late.
Curtis Flowers was escorted to his metal seat by a corrections officer. His hands cuffed in front of him, Curtis was also chained to the chair. “I’m considered a threat to myself and others,” he explained. “I guess that makes sense if I did what they convicted me of doing.”
In the eyes of the state of Mississippi, Curtis Flowers is a deranged killer. Nonetheless, through fourteen years of incarceration (including several stretches in Parchman) he has yet to have a single disciplinary write-up. You can find background on his case here.
From the moment he was chained to his seat, Flowers’ eyes were on the window behind me–his only connection with the natural world. “I don’t see windows like this in the building. The window I do see out of in my cell is so narrow and covered with filth that you can barely see out of it unless you climb on top of your top bunk, and that’s dangerous for a person my size and medical condition. The only time I see trees, the sky and the grass is when I come to visitation.”
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“You want the truth?” Curtis said with a laugh. “This is a really sad place to be. They closed down Unit 32 partly ’cause it was so hot; but we still have no air-conditioning and I believe it’s hotter now than it used to be. The old building was made out of cinder block, so at least the temperature would drop at night. This new building is pretty much all metal, so it holds the heat all night long. I don’t ever wear a shirt on the cell-block because anything you put on is instantly covered with sweat. I really feel sorry for the guards who have to work in here.”
According to the ACLU’s account of old Unit 32, “The temperatures in the cells during the long Delta summers were lethal, with heat indexes, we later proved, of over 130 degrees Fahrenheit.” Curtis Flowers has braved both conditions; if he says its hotter now, I believe him.
“Man, it’s been hot as hell in here for weeks,” Curtis told me. “This morning, when we heard the first claps of thunder, all the inmates started banging on the walls. We were so happy to hear the rain coming; now maybe the temperature will drop a few degrees.”
“Do they let you out of your cell at all?” I asked.
“Once a day, for an hour,” Curtis said. “But I don’t usually go out. It’s too hot to move.”
“Do they let you work in the fields?”
“Not if you’re on death row,” he said. “We can’t do nothing. Man, if they handed me a hoe, I’d be a happy man. It’s hard work, but it sure beats sitting in a cramped little cell watching a puddle of your own sweat on the floor.”
Extreme heat and prison are synonymous in the South. Most federal prisons have air conditioning. All but 19 of the 114 state prisons in Texas do not. Most Mississippi prison are air conditioned, just not death row. It seems appropriate to most Mississippi officials that death row prisoners suffer as much as possible in this world before being dispatched to hell. If you think 130 degrees is bad, the reasoning goes, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Prison isn’t primarily about public safety; the intention is to make those who stray over the line separating the good people from the bad feel the sting of pious retribution. It’s a species of redemptive violence. If inmates (especially on death row) are beaten by guards, raped by fellow inmates with the compliance of prison officials, deprived of decent food and medical attention, few politicians, in Mississippi or elsewhere in these United States, will raise a whisper of protest.
Thank God for those bleeding hearts in the godless ACLU!
Listening to Curtis talk, I felt the early stages of a panic attack sweeping over me. I am generally not claustrophobic, but I could feel the walls closing in on me. The long, thin visiting area was locked from the outside and simply knowing that I couldn’t get up and walk out whenever I desired had me to the verge of despair–and I had only been in the place for half an hour.
“Get a hold of yourself,” I sub-vocalized. “You will be back in the free world in an hour or so. You have nothing to worry about. Everything’s okay.” Gradually, I felt the panic ease.
“How’s the food,” I asked.
“Don’t even ask,” Curtis replied, “it’s awful. You’re hungry, but the meat they give you isn’t cooked, so you don’t dare eat it. There’s blood on the chicken bones. So I’ve been losing weight. I guess that’s okay, ’cause I was getting a little heavy, but my stomach’s been bothering me for over a month now. Something ain’t right.”
“Have you talked to a doctor?”
“This new doctor is terrible to all of us,” Curtis said. He doesn’t even listen to what we tell him about what is wrong with us. Then he prescribes hardly any meds in order to save money or something. ”
“Have you complained?” I asked.
“That’s something you don’t do in here,” Curtis said. “If you write a complaint, the big folks send certain guards to harass you, to write you up. You end up being sprayed with gas and put behind the steel door for 30 days. Most of the guards here in our building are decent people and try to do right by us. It’s the ones that do not work in the building that are sent over here to do the dirty work. It’s because of them that half the guys here (especially death row inmates) can’t get visits with their families, or even talk to them by phone. It’s been that way for over a year because of guards who don’t mind treating you like nothing just to please those big folks who just sit back in their offices and smile.'”
“I’ve got my own way of doing things,” Curtis explained. “The guards lash out because they’re locked in here too and they don’t like this place any more than the inmates do. There’s not hardly any supervision, so if some guard wants to mistreat you, he’s gonna do it. That’s why I work so hard to stay on good terms with everybody no matter what prison I’m in. You just can’t take any of this personal.”
“How do you mean?” I said.
“Well, let me give you an example. A guard told me this the other day. He said, ‘how come you keep your head up all the time, even when we’ve got you cuffed and chained and we’re hauling you from one place to another?’ I told him that’s not the way I see it. ‘I think of it as if I’m a king or the president or some other important dude and you’re taking me to an important meeting with some other bigshot. In my mind, you guys are there for my protection. You’re my entourage.'”
I knew I couldn’t make that kind of attitude adjustment if Curtis and I swapped places. The fact that he is innocent of the charges against him makes his attitude even more amazing.
“Here’s the bottom line,” Curtis continued. “I survive in here by respecting everybody. I respect the guards and, most of the time, they respect me. I joke with them; they joke back. You give them grief and back talk and you become the enemy. They can make your life miserable if they want to. My job is to make them not want to.”
“Do you ever get to sing in here?” I asked. It wasn’t just a casual question. Curtis was a highly respected gospel singer before he was arrested for killing Bertha Tardy, Carmen Rigby, Bobo Stewart and Robert Golden in a Winona, MS furniture store in 1996. Prior to his first trial, (and after all five trials that have ended in hung juries or verdict reversals), Curtis has done his time in minimum security county jails. On those occasions he has the pleasure of leading the singing at worship services. Then comes another trial, another conviction, and he’s back on death row in Parchman.
“I sometimes sing gospel songs to myself,” Curtis replied. “Even if I’m the only one that can hear, it makes me feel better.”
Last summer, Curtis was convicted once again; his appeal is currently being considered by the Supreme Court of Mississippi, one of the most conscientious appeal courts in the South. In recent years, as many men have been removed from death row due to defective trials as have been executed. Things are very different here in Texas.
While Curtis and I were talking, the wind picked up and sheets of rain began to feed a thirsty countryside.
“Now that’s what I like to see!” Curtis said. “I bet it will be down to 95 degrees by nightfall. I know that sounds bad; but for us guys on death row, it’ll feel like heaven.”