Saturday, October 25, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Mississippi still burning

Mass incarceration and prison squalor have replaced segregation in the Deep South

Mississippi still burning

The charred door frame of a solitary-confinement unit. Former inmates said that prisoners housed in such units sometimes started fires in an effort to attract the attention of guards.
The charred door frame of a solitary-confinement unit. Former inmates said that prisoners housed in such units sometimes started fires in an effort to attract the attention of guards. ACLU

One cultural event I'm looking forward to this month is the PBS airing of a new documentary called "Freedom Summer," a documentary about the 50th anniversary of a remarkable event, when mostly college students, mostly from up North, descended after a brief training period into the deepest and most dangerous parts of rural Mississippi. Their audacious goal was to register as many black voters as possible, under the threat of violence, even death.

The saga of what happened in 1964 in the nation's then-most segregated state is still terrifying. Dozens were beaten and arrested, and then Freedom Summer's worst fears were realized when three participants -- James Cheney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman -- disappeared in the first few days of the registration drive. Their bodies were found days later, buried in a local dam.

But "Freedom Summer" is also a feel-good story, right? The courage both of civil rights activists and local blacks -- as well as the murders -- motivated Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which gave the right to vote for millions of African-Americans across the Deep South. What's more, that summer spawned a cadre of activists committed to social change, like Mario Savio, who returned to the University of California at Berkeley and launched the Free Speech movement on that campus. It's a story about overcoming, about the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice...

...right?

So what are we to make of a report in the New York Times today that thousands of Mississippians -- of all races, though predominantly black -- are deprived of another basic human and American right, suffering cruel and unusual punishment in a privately run prison in conditions that would shame most Third-World banana republics.

The Times reports there are sometimes unattended fires in the solitary confinement unit at East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Meridian, adding: "Inmates spend months in near-total darkness. Illnesses go untreated. Dirt, feces and, occasionally, blood are caked on the walls of cells."

The newspaper reports that medical care and training for guards at the facility -- where Mississippi sends many inmates found to be mentally ill -- are substandard, and that it was provided photographs that "showed charred door frames, broken light fixtures and toilets, exposed electrical wires, and what advocates said were infected wounds on prisoners’ arms and legs."

This is an extreme manifestation of a far-ranging scandal. In the years since civil rights fighters helped to end segregation and gained the right to vote for all citizens, American has found a new way to deprive too many of our citizens of their rights: Locking them up -- the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any industrialized country, by far -- and sending them out of sight to places like this Mississippi prison, run on the cheap by a privatized low bidder in barbaric conditions.

I can't state this clearly enough: Mass incarceration in America is segregation by a different name. The reality is that attacks on civil rights are endemic to parts of this country like Mississippi, and when one door is closed the bad guys just look to open a new front. Take voter ID. True, it will prevent fewer people from voting than the poll taxes and literacy tests of the 20th Century -- but any attempt to block voting is equal when it comes to its sad immorality.

And it gets worse. If the pundits (i know, I know) can be believed. In 2014, Mississippi sits on the brink of sending to the U.S. Senate a man who pals around with neo-Confederates. Of candidate Chris McDaniel, who's favored to win a GOP primary runoff this month, which would make him heavy favorite to win in November, Mother Jones reported..

"...McDaniel is a southern conservative with a controversial track record. Last summer, he delivered the keynote address at an event hosted by a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a neo-Confederate group that, as my colleague Tim Murphy wrote, "promotes the work of present-day secessionists and contends the wrong side won the 'war of southern independence.'" McDaniel spoke at past Sons of Confederate Veterans-affiliated events, according to a spokesman for the group. From 2004 to 2007, McDaniel hosted a syndicated Christian conservative radio program, Right Side Radio. Once, McDaniel weighed in on gun violence in America by blaming "hip-hop" culture.

"The past is never dead," a wise man once said. "It's not even past."

That wise man was William Faulkner. He was from Mississippi.

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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