Mississippi's Corrections Reform
n January 2002, Margaret Winter, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) National Prison Project, received a letter from Willie Russell, an inmate on Mississippi's death row.
"I am on a hunger strike to the death," the letter began. In highly idiosyncratic language, the letter then described conditions at the facility where death row was housed, Unit 32.
Unit 32 was one of seven prisons located on Mississippi's fabled penal institution, Parchman Farm. As described by Russell, it was also a lot like hell. Inmates were locked in permanent solitary confinement. In the summer, the cells were ovens, with no fans or air circulation. Russell's was even worse: He was in a special "punishment" cell with a solid, unvented Plexiglas door. The cells were also sewers, thanks to a design flaw in cellblock toilets that often flushed excrement from one cell into the next. Prisoners were allowed outside -- to pace or sit alone in metal cages -- just two or three times a week. Inside was a perpetual dusk: One always-on light fixture provided inadequate light for reading but enough light to make it hard to sleep.
Then there were the bugs. The only way to avoid being eaten alive, Russell wrote, was to wrap himself in clothes like a mummy, which made the brutal Delta heat even more unbearable. Worst of all, though, was the noise. Psychotic inmates screamed through the night. Conditions were so bad, Russell continued, that some dozen-odd other inmates -- about one-quarter of Mississippi's death row population -- had also joined the hunger strike.
"I had heard this sort of thing before," Winter says, "but I was gripped by the power of this letter. It was like something out of the Book of Genesis. It had a biblical grandeur to it. And I believed it." Winter hurriedly arranged a trip to Parchman Farm, where she met her correspondent for the first time. He was a giant of a man -- 6 feet 8 inches tall, 250 pounds. Though he was handcuffed, shackled, belly-chained and dressed in the distinctive, solid red jump suits worn by death row inmates, he clearly was a proud man, "fantastically imposing." But he already was visibly wasted by the hunger strike. His skin was ashen, his eyes bluish and dry.
"He didn't want false hope," she recalls. "He said he would stop if I would give him a solemn assurance that we could make changes -- significant changes. He didn't want to be strung along." He'd rather die now instead.
Winter told him that if she could corroborate what he was saying, she felt certain they could change conditions such that he would want to continue living and fighting his death sentence. Russell accepted the offer and agreed to end the hunger strike. Seven months later, in July 2002, the ACLU filed suit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) on behalf of Russell, five other inmates and those similarly situated. The ACLU alleged that "defendants knowingly subject the death row prisoners to barbaric and inhumane conditions, which wantonly inflict unnecessary pain and constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and 14th amendments to the Constitution of the United States."
But where Winter saw a noble giant, Parchman Farm staff saw the 41-year-old Russell as something else -- a murderer with a history of violent crime. In 1987, while serving an armed robbery sentence, Russell was sent to a Jackson, Miss., hospital for medical care. Once there, he kidnapped a guard and escaped, leading police on a high-speed chase that ended with a crash. He was sent to Unit 24 at Parchman Farm, a medium-security prison. Two years later, Russell broke out of his cell and killed a prison guard with a homemade shank. For that, a jury sent Russell to death row. In 2000, Russell shot at a prison guard with a homemade "zip gun." Not surprisingly, prison officials had little sympathy for him.
Many of the measures Russell decried were there (or not there) for a reason. Plexiglas on the cell doors was necessary to prevent inmates from flinging feces and urine at prison guards. Screens were missing because inmates used them to make shanks.