UM and Parchman educator weighs in on Mississippi’s high number of inmate deaths in August

Published 10:30 am Saturday, September 1, 2018

With a recent uptick in the number of inmate deaths in August, many people are left questioning the circumstances, opening up a larger discussion about what it means to be imprisoned in Mississippi.

One of the people in the discussion is Dr. Patrick Alexander, associate professor of English and African-American studies at the University of Mississippi. Alexander is the co-founder and co-director of the Prison-to-College Pipeline program, which works in conjunction with the University, Mississippi College, and the Mississippi Humanities Council to provide higher education at Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman and at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl.

A total of 15 people died in Mississippi prisons in the month of August, which Alexander admitted is a sad statistic. However, he said, it seems to be an opportunity to acknowledge the humanity of those in such an impersonal place and be intentionally reflective as a state.

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“I think about what’s happening now in Mississippi as a moment to be thoughtfully responsive about our shared humanity,” Alexander said. “I think we’re desensitized to folks’ humanity, even in terms of our language. People say, ‘Oh, it was 14 convicts who died.’ No, it was 14 human beings.”

Alexander and his colleagues begin and end every class by chanting, “I’m a student. I’m a teacher. I’m a scholar. I’m capable.” It’s a mantra that was borne out of a student’s frustration with his environment, with the multitude of roadblocks he faced on his educational journey, Alexander said.

From there, it became a reminder that, even in rooms with no air conditioning, poor ventilation, noise and other distractions, the students were capable of success beyond prison walls.

Just as important as dying in the body, Alexander said, is mental decomposition as a result of rampant under-education.

“I don’t want our conversations about biological death to interrupt the more important conversations that correspond with this, which I see as being about how people are slowly dying in terms of their mind, their wellbeing,” he said. “I think that education, for too many of the students I’ve met in prison, is not something they had on the front end. We see education as something that is absolutely helpful for these students’ future, but also for the present and helping contextualize their past.”

It’s no secret that Parchman has a notorious history, which has been documented in books like David Oshinsky’s “Worse than Slavery.” In the last five years alone, more deaths have occurred there than at any other correctional facility in the state, according to the state Department of Corrections.

MDOC Commissioner Pelicia E. Hall issued a statement this past Tuesday stating the department takes seriously its constitutional mandate to provide healthcare to all individuals in its custody, and that the majority of deaths were from natural causes.

The deceased inmates range in age from 24 to 75.

“The number of deaths the department is reporting is not out of line with the number of deaths in previous months. However, the department appreciates the concern from the public and remains committed to transparency,” Hall said in the statement. “As such, the department has been the first source to make certain information about deaths available to the general public.”

However, the State Department of Health reported in 2016 (the last year with publicly available data) that the overall mortality rate in Mississippi was 1,063.6 deaths per 100,000 people. At Parchman in 2017, the mortality rate was 1,337 deaths per 100,000.

Alexander admits that, because he works exclusively in Unit 25 with pre-release inmates, he sees a very different perspective from those in other units with tighter security. However, he said, it’s possible for the two to coexist.

“When new faculty or new graduate student teaching assistants come to Parchman, I try to explain to them there’s probably going to be a disconnect between what you’ve read about Parchman and what you see in Unit 25,” he said. “I don’t want that to make them think Unit 25 is the totality of Parchman, and neither that the totality of Parchman is somehow like what Unit 25 is like. Neither of these notions are true. I think it’s important to note – and this has been true throughout history – that the two contrasting realities can coexist in the same place.”

Above all, Alexander said his end goal is to treat his students as just that – not convicts, not inmates, not a number.

Most recently, that mission has involved efforts to bring his students’ writings to the outside world while simultaneously helping them contextualize their life experiences both leading up to and including imprisonment.

“I think this can become a moment, especially if we’re conscious of our shared humanity, to begin to understand that these are fellow human beings,” Alexander said. “That’s the perspective I take with all the news stories coming out – this is an opportunity for us who say we value humanity to be very inquisitive, very concerned, to seek solidarity with human beings who are dealing with death and premature death.”