I am Tom Freeland, a lawyer in Oxford, Mississippi. The picture in the header is my law office. I'm on Twitter as NMissC

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He waved his magic gavel and, POOF, thousands of acres disappeared from Sunflower County

I knew Judge Keady was a particularly powerful federal judge, but had no idea how powerful until I read this headline (same heading in both the Oxford Eagle and the Clarion Ledger versions of this Jack Elliott story):

Parchman farm disappeared after Gates

Headline aside, the story is a good quick overview of the historic prison litigation that just ended.  One aside, though:  The shut down of the farms was not, as I understand it, directly imposed by the litigation; it was a decision made by the state at about the same time and related to the decision.    I may be remembering this in error, though.

Here’s some of the story:

Nazareth Gates is not as well known in Mississippi as, say, the late Jake Ayers Sr. He should be.

It was Ayers’ landmark lawsuit in 1975 that forced Mississippi to confess it had failed to financially support the three historic black universities as it should. The state has spent millions rectifying its mistake.

Equally, Gates, as the lead plaintiff in 1971 in a lawsuit filed by civil rights attorney Roy Haber, brought about an end to the trusty system and inmates abuses at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Also, over the next 40 years, the state of Mississippi spent millions of dollars overhauling its corrections system.

“There’s no question that the federal courts had to get involved,” said Don Cabana, a former Parchman superintendent and former corrections commissioner. “Things at Parchman had been neglected for decades … just ignored … not just the condition of the physical plant but the treatment of inmates.”

Decisions made in Mississippi’s prison system were subject to federal court oversight since 1972, when the late U.S. District Judge William C. Keady found evidence of overcrowding, forced labor and segregation at the state penitentiary at Parchman.

U.S. Magistrate Jerry A. Davis on March 10 removed the oversight.

Keady forced Mississippi to abandon the prison farm system created in 1901.

The farm was located in the rich soil and flat lands of the Mississippi Delta. Amid the cotton fields, inmates labored in the hot sun, died in the hot sun – some at the hands of trusties and guards – and lived in squalor.

Keady toured the facility, taking reporters with him on some occasions on his announced visits, showing up alone – and unannounced – at other times.

Revenue sharing money in the 1970s financed improvements Keady ordered. The farm camps spread over thousands of acres of Delta soil with only the heat and flatlands to discourage escapes were replaced with buildings fenced in with razor wire.

Those new prison facilities cost more than $35 million, according to Department of Corrections records.


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