An outbreak of violence across Mississippi prisons resulting in five inmate deaths during the week of Dec. 29 caused celebrities and members of the university community to sound the call for criminal justice reform in the state.
Last week, Garrett Felber, an assistant professor of history at the university, created the Mississippi Freedom Letters campaign to write a letter to every inmate in the state, serving as both support for the prisoners and a message to the state Department of Corrections (MDOC). Meanwhile, rap tycoon Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter sued the head of MDOC and the warden of the state penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, on behalf of 29 current prisoners claiming that officials have done nothing to prevent the prison violence.
Mississippi has the third highest incarceration rate in the country, but state prisons often find themselves understaffed and underfunded, which has caused continuous problems with maintenance, sanitation and violence in the facilities over the past several years.
When the state prison crisis began to escalate in late December, Felber reached out to Pauline Rogers, who co-founded the Reaching and Education for Community Hope (RECH) Foundation to aid those impacted by crime and incarceration, and asked how to help.
Felber said that Rogers, who was formerly incarcerated herself, gave him the idea to start Mississippi Freedom Letters, a campaign to write letters of encouragement to the roughly 30,000 incarcerated people in Mississippi.
“It’s really just sending love and support from whatever faith or political persuasion that you are, however that looks,” Felber said. “It’s about letting people know that they’re not alone and that they’re remembered, while also signalling to officials in the MDOC that this can’t just be a closed-door issue.”
The most recent lawsuit, filed by attorney Alex Spiro in Greenville on behalf of Jay-Z, states that the recent deaths “are a direct result of Mississippi’s utter disregard for the people it has incarcerated and their constitutional rights.” It comes just days after Jay-Z and Mario Mims, who raps under the name Yo Gotti, wrote to Gov. Phil Bryant and now former MDOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall in protest of the “inhumane conditions” in state operated prisons. The pair is also organizing a rally near the Capitol in Jackson on Friday, though a spokesperson said Jay-Z and Yo Gotti will not attend.
For years, there have been reports of deteriorating conditions, and in August of 2019, an audit of the state penitentiary in Parchman, found mold, mildew, broken toilets and missing pillows and mattresses in cells. MDOC officials say work orders for these problems were submitted last summer, but experts and activists alike argue that mending dilapidated buildings and filing lawsuits like Jay-Z’s are not enough to improve the safety and living conditions of prisoners in the state.
“(MDOC is) constantly under lawsuit, so I think we need to think more creatively about what we’re doing,” Felber said.
Two more inmates were killed in Parchman on Monday night, but MDOC said in a tweet, “it appears to be an isolated incident — not a continuation of the recent retaliatory killings.”
Cam Calisch, a senior anthropology major who has joined the Mississippi Freedom Letters campaign, said that writing letters allows concerned citizens to feel like they are making an impact, even if they aren’t garnering national attention from a lawsuit like Jay-Z.
“If a powerful person comes onto the scene and says something, of course there’s going to be more attention, so it’s hard to call that bad,” Calisch said. “But I think that isn’t a sustainable way of creating social change. Writing these letters is just a small way of getting together and sending people something that says we care, and we’re fighting for them on the outside.”
On Monday, Felber, Calisch and about a dozen students organized in Barnard Observatory to continue letter writing, and the campaign has now sent over 1,500 letters in its first week of operation.
Paige Sims, a junior psychology major, said one of her family members has been in and out of Mississippi jails throughout childhood and adulthood, so prison reform is an issue close to her heart.
“I don’t see rehabilitation efforts, and as citizens, don’t we want to see prisons trying to reform people rather than just shutting them up, using their labor and not giving them any type of support once they are released?” she said. “I want to write to people to make them feel seen and less forgotten by society, as I think a lot of prisoners do feel.”
Jared Foster, a senior sociology major involved in Mississippi Freedom Letters, said his stepfather has been incarcerated in Parchman, but because of familial support and good behavior, he was able to reduce his seven-year sentence down to one. Foster said he wanted to write letters to those incarcerated as a way to encourage them in the same way that helped his stepfather.
“A large group of people are paying more and more attention to what’s going on inside of the prisons in Mississippi, so something is going to have to happen if we keep applying more and more pressure,” Foster said. “Even Jay-Z is suing the state of Mississippi prison system now, so support to solve the problem is growing.”
Support for Mississippi Freedom Letters has spread across state lines to Virginia and North Carolina as well.
Apart from contacting activist groups on campus, Felber said he used the national network he has developed through Twitter to reach like-minded people with a passion for criminal justice reform. Letter-writing events have been held by students and professors across the South at schools like the University of Virginia and Duke University as a part of the campaign, and Felber said he plans to continue organizing meetings to promote the project through completion.