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MISSISSIPPI
DELTA

A Field Guide to the Plantation-to-Prison Pipeline

Instructor: Billy Fleming

Students: Asha Bazil, Amy Liu-Pathak, Leeana Skuby, and Jackson Plumlee
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The communities surrounding the Mississippi Delta are facing challenges produced by pervasive injustices. Slavery, both historic and modern, has long been a premise underlying the Delta’s mutually reinforcing systems of industrial agriculture, fossil fuel, and incarceration.

 

As such, the region has some of the highest poverty rates in the country. Residents increasingly experience extreme storms, flooding, and compromised air and water quality. In this context, imprisonment has mistakenly been used as a vehicle for economic development. Each of these systems intensify the ways in which vulnerable communities, typically low-income, Black or African American, and/or Indigenous, are impacted by climate change.

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Photo 1 :Plantations of the Mississippi River from Natchez to New Orleans; Composite image of historic maps and insets showing 19th c. rice and sugar cane plantations.

Photo 2: Overlay of current fossil fuel infrastructure and prison sites that have transitioned from historic plantation landholdings to form current day Cancer Alley.

Source: Tennessee State Library and Archives, 1858

Amidst brutality, people have still shown time and time again their capacity to thrive. The land surrounding the river and delta is exceptionally fertile. The region’s music, literature, and other modes of artistic expression are inextricable from American canon. However, such resilience should not justify needless suffering and absolve doers of harm. In a more just society, the lives of those in the Delta would move away from generational traumas and closer to a collective vision for human and environmental flourishing.

 

In the 16th century, Europeans arrived and brought enslaved Africans to work on plantations. Throughout post-colonial America’s growth, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez people were enslaved, killed through genocide, or forced to give up land. Between 1801 and 1830, after numerous coercive treaties and forcible seizures, the Choctaw alone ceded more than 23 million acres to the United States. They and other groups were effectively removed by the federal government from their ancestral homelands.

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Image: Covers from Angola’s inmate-led news magazine, The Angolite.

Source: Smithsonian NMAAHCBottom

[1] Clyde Adrian Woods and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta (London: Verso, 2017).

The Mississippi Delta region is defined by the river. The soil is fertile, the wetlands vast, and the flooding catastrophic. Levees along the Mississippi were built using exploited labor of African Americans to protect the investments of landowners. In his book, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in Mississippi, Clyde Woods asserts that “the levee system was, and is, one of the defining features of Delta capitalism.”[1]

 

The protection these levees afford is not evenly applied. The failure of the levees surrounding New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina displaced over 1.5 million mostly Black people, destroying their homes and communities. This natural hazard became an even larger disaster as racialized policing skyrocketed in the aftermath of the hurricane, with white residents “finding” food and Black residents “looting” grocery stores.

A FIELD GUIDE TO THE PLANTATION-TOPRISON
PIPELINE

This field guide is intended to help readers
understand the past and present relationships
between environmental and socioeconomic issues in
the Mississippi Delta region—namely, the carceral
system, the natural and built environments, and
capitalism and labor. In doing so, readers may
better grasp the urgent need for transformative
solutions in the Delta and beyond.


Today’s challenges relating to incarceration and
climate change are rooted in the history of the Delta
and in the modern iterations of racist worldviews
that manifest themselves in systems of power.
The systems of power that maintain racialized
capitalism in the Delta are complex, intertwined,
and entrenched. Iterative changes allow actors to
adapt and maintain their exploitative power. Thus a
bold reimagining is necessary for meaningful change.
We illustrate the plantation-to-prison pipeline
at three carceral sites in the Delta:
• The Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola Prison)
• The Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman
Prison)
• The Lafourche Correctional Facility

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Image: Angola Prison Farm, 1938

Source: Ogden Museum of Southern Art

ANGOLA PRISON WEST FELICIANA PARISH, LOUISIANA

# of people incarcerated: 5,815

Year opened: 1901

Size: 18,000 acres

Race/ethnicity: 75% Black, 24% White, 1% other

Operating budget: $141,592,497

 

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison, is equal to the size of Manhattan. It is surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River, the fourth side touching the base of Tunica Hills. Angola Prison operated as a plantation exploiting enslaved people in the late eighteenth century. Its name references the provenance of the people working the land who were initially brought to the site from Angola through the trans-atlantic slave trade. The original owner of the plantations, Issac Franklin, operated one of the most profitable slave trading firms in the pre-Civil War era, the Franklin and Armfield Company. The farm within the prison’s walls produces four million pounds of vegetable crops annually, in addition to its cotton and livestock operations. Inmates working to cultivate, harvest, and process these products are paid an average $0.20 an hour. At 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, total income amounts to $8.93 per month. The facility also uses incarcerated labor for metal fabrication and powder coating, textile production, tractor repair, and silk screening, among many other intensive jobs.[2]

 

The prison is the largest correctional facility in the United States by population with 5,815 inmates as of 2019. The annual operating budget as of 2020 was $141,592,497 – about four times the budget for the Louisiana Department of Economic Development which was $35,557,397. Angola employs 1,420 people making it one of the largest employers in the state, with 800non-incarcerated people living on the prison property.

[2] Louisiana Prison Industries, LA Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

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MAP OF ANGOLA PRISON

Parchman Prison, Sunflower County, Mississippi

# of people incarcerated: 1,939
Year opened: 1901
Size: 18,000 acres
Race/ethnicity: 68% Black, 31% White, 1% other
Operating budget:
$53,653,895

 

The Mississippi State Penitentiary, also called Parchman Prison, is a state-owned and operated prison located in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Established in 1901, \ Parchman Prison was intended to be a penal farm, and so the prison site was designed as a plantation. Incarcerated African Americans, who were enslaved by the state of Mississippi under the 13th Amendment, were forced to construct the buildings where they would be held captive. Parchman is now the largest and oldest prison in Mississippi.

Prior to the construction of Parchman Prison, the state utilized the convict-leasing system. Incarcerated African Americans were sold to private farm and business owners through the convict leasing system. People who leased convicts saw no reason to provide for their wellbeing and brutally tortured anyone who refused to work, including children. The state ensured a steady number of people were convicted of crimes to sustain the convict-lease system by passing laws to criminalize African Americans who were freed from enslavement. By 1877, the number of people incarcerated by the state of Mississippi grew from 272 to 1,072.

Parchman reported annual profits as high as half a million dollars to the state legislature. However, if incarcerated people had been paid for labor, Parchman would have been a financial loss almost every year. In 2019, incarcerated people at Parchman provided more than 100,000 hours of free labor to the surrounding municipalities.
 

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Map of
Parchman Prison
(Mississippi State
Penitentiary)

LAFOURCHE CORRECTIONAL COMPLEX,

LAFOURCHE PARISH, LOUISIANA

 

# of people incarcerated: 600
Year opened: 2020
Size: 31 acres
Race/ethnicity: 43% Black, 55% White, 2% other
Operating budget:
$36,500,000

The now defunct Detention Center was built in 1968 and had a capacity for approximately 24 5 inmates. The cost to expand the aging building for a short term fix was undesirable, and its limited space contributed to inmates being regularly sent to other parishes. In 2014, parish residents voted to approve a 0.2% sales tax for constructing today’s Correctional Center, and by 2019, the new building became operational while the old building was closed.

 

The Correctional Center increases inmate capacity by 140%, and boasts new areas for gardens, counseling, and social services. Despite the parish’s shift toward “correction”, the facility still stands for a policy paradigm that endangers and devalues incarcerated lives. In September 2021, Louisiana state officials urged residents to evacuate their communities in anticipation of Hurricane Ida. The hurricane would ultimately make its landfall in Lafourche Parish. As residents fled, roughly 600 inmates were required to stay behind. Some were tasked with filling sandbags to protect residents’ property from the flooding.

 

Further belying “correction”, the complex exploits prison labor for dangerous work in the oil and gas industries. Records show that of the 51 companies that hired the 156 work release participants in October 2019, 30 companies are involved in various aspects of pipeline construction, oil response, and offshore rig production. Offshore jobs, being some of the most specialized and rare placements, command the highest wages at roughly $13.50 per hour. Operators pocket anywhere from 45% - 65% of prisoners’ wages to cover prisoners’ room and board.

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MAP OF LAFOURCHE CORRECTIONAL COMPLEX

THE WORLD THAT PRISON LABOR BUILT

The impacts of incarceration reach far beyond the prison walls and into the daily lives of surrounding residents. Beyond the physical facilities of the prisons, there is a constructed system of relations that reinforce the carceral state as an engine for economic and political hegemony. Shown at left is a typical delta community behind the levees of the Mississippi River.
 

THE HOME

 

Even within the private spaces of the home, incarcerated labor is exploited for mass consumption through the diverse array of goods that prison factories churn out. Everyday items such as mattresses, clothing, and furniture are all part of this wide array of products. An entire home could be furnished from the catalog of the carceral state.

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THE INDUSTRIES AND
INFRASTRUCTURE 

In x-ray view, we see the regime of exploited labor that underlies
daily life in the communities that prisons built. We see this legacy reflected in the infrastructures and industries that sustain the Delta region