Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Sid Salter: Remembering Keady: Federal judge dismantled Southern ‘plantation’ prisons

I attended a portion of the Mississippi Historical Society annual meeting on Friday at the “Two Museums” complex near the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Mississippi’s capital city. Jackson has received a significant share of negative national media attention over the last decade for a myriad of problems.


But the “Two Museums” – the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum – remain modern monuments to what can be in our state. They are also places that are repositories of lessons Mississippians should have learned together over the last century – lessons about race, poverty, injustice, courage, accomplishment and potential that are at once realized and unrealized.


The Mississippi Historical Society is an organization in which conversations and scholarship about Mississippi’s bewildering history have continued and flourished. This year’s annual meeting focused on women in our state’s history, Mississippi’s environmental history, and 20th Century Mississippi history.


There were several outstanding presentations, including an incredible look at the “Operation Chlorine” episode in which a barge carrying two million pounds of deadly liquid chlorine sank in the Mississippi River near Natchez in 1961.


The ensuing and harrowing efforts over the next 18 months to safely raise the chlorine tanks engaged President John F. Kennedy and Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett at a time the pair were actively skirmishing over the admission of James Meredith as the first Black student at Ole Miss and that Kennedy was simultaneously locked in unprecedented nuclear brinksmanship with Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis.


But as one who spent a significant amount of time covering issues at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and the politics of corrections at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson – and as a proud father – I was particularly interested in a presentation by archivist Kate Salter Gregory on the personal and judicial papers of the late U.S. District Judge William Colbert Keady of Greenville.


There was a time in Mississippi – and also in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas - when the state’s prison inmates in great measure ran the prisons. In those days, inmates working in the cotton fields at the sprawling 20,000-acre Parchman prison farm complex in Sunflower and Quitman counties in the Mississippi Delta were routinely guarded by armed trusty inmates on horseback who had “shoot-to-kill” authority from prison officials should an inmate make a run for freedom.

More than trusty inmates simply manning gun posts in the cotton fields, trusties also ruled the prison dormitories by night. The inmate “cage bosses, floorwalkers, and hall boys” were in those days allowed to mete out their own justice to fellow inmates away, primarily, from the prying eyes of prison staff.


Until federal court intervention, the Parchman farm was operated as a state-owned plantation farming operation with a strong profit motive. The bottom line was that making a profit for the state on the cotton, row crop and livestock harvests was encouraged. Observance of modern trends in enlightened penology was not.


For those prisoners who would not toe the line, there were torturous beatings with the leather strap called “Black Annie.”


In his 1988 book All Rise: Memoirs of a Mississippi Federal Judge, Keady recounted his long involvement in efforts to reform the Mississippi prison system from the measured view of a veteran federal judge.


“The court found that the physical facilities were in such condition as to be unfit for human habitation, that racial discrimination was practiced by the penal authorities in the assignment of inmates, that the medical staff and hospital facilities available to penitentiary inmates were far less than minimal, and that the inmates, under the protection of few free-world personnel, had to work under guns placed in the hands of other inmates who were trusties. Many evils in the trusty system were documented by the evidence. The court found that a complete lack of proper disciplinary rules for inmates regarding prison misconduct existed and that a proper system of punishment and hearing procedures did not exist.”


Keady’s decision in the landmark Gates v. Collier case outlawed racial segregation and the trusty system in prisons, ending what historian David Oshinsky called in his writings about the old Parchman Farm prison “worse than slavery.”


Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at


Anonymous said...

I wonder if there was a correlation between the prison back then and the crime rate of the time? Hmmmm.

Anonymous said...

I still bristle at the idea of our two "Separate but Equal" museums, but these were some very interesting historical vignettes I was unaware of -- I could see a Mississippi Historical Society recap being a great recurring segment

Anonymous said...

Prisoners still run the prisons you idiot.

Anonymous said...

Does Sid Salter and Jerry Mitchell live together?

Anonymous said...

The cornbread article was much more interesting.

Anonymous said...

Thinking of concealing hacksaw blades in some cornbread, aye.

Anonymous said...

I had forgotten about the chlorine barge sinking near Natchez. Friends from there have talked about it and described how everyone, including children, from Louisiana and Mississippi were issued gas masks, along with school buses organized to be ready to take people to evacuation sites miles away.

Anonymous said...

Jackson’s murder rate was almost nil in 1988. I think they were on to something back then.

Anonymous said...

If you can't trust a trustee, who can you trust?

Anonymous said...

Criminals are bad people.The emphasis should be on punishment.
Once they complete their sentence they should be given the right to vote after reimbursing the state the cost of confinement.

Anonymous said...

He also single handedly destroyed the public school system in MS.

Don Drane said...

Sid has penned another top-water article clearly avoiding mention of the many negative outcomes of the one-armed-Keady's sweeping decisions. The Federal Judge was (and is) widely despised by law enforcement back then.

I remember when prisoners were required to work, when they got off the bus and lined various highway roadsides in Bolivar and other counties, picking up litter, when they made billfolds and belts and sold them on highway 49, when they worked in the print shop and the tag making shop, the laundry, the stables.

And when they were mandated to work, not voluntarily. Back when they rolled out of the bunk, early, and worked all day long. When they toiled in the cotton fields and were too tired at days-end to get in mischief, join gangs or get neck tats.

I also remember dove hunting in the fields on the prison grounds, out toward Merigold, with men in striped britches running to get downed doves like dogs trained to retrieve quail. There were shotguns leaned on truck fenders and in gun cases on the ground, but no prisoner dared to look at one of them for fear of being blown away by a Trusty or a legit guard.

Keady, sort of like Barbara Mandrell with peanuts in her coke, was woke before woke was cool. Suddenly, Parchman Farm was no longer 'prison'. There were air conditioners, shining floors, libraries, voluntary labor, even conjugal visits on the horizon.

There was a lot to be said for Mississippi prison being a feared place. And Sid was barely a teenager at that time.

Anonymous said...

"I could see a Mississippi Historical Society recap being a great recurring segment..."
Depends on whose version of history or its revision you might 'see'.

Anonymous said...

We're better off now because of Judge Keady. I don't know how, though. Maybe it's because Sid thinks so, because it's who we are, because that's our values.

Anonymous said...

2023 is a statewide elections year so plan on Democrats Sid, Bill, et al to divide, divide, divide. No mention of the progress; no mention of the 20+ trillion spent on poverty programs since the 1960’s thru 2019; no mention of the Democrat controlled disaster called Jackson, MS. It will be all about the past – and all about division.

Because “making them mad enough to vote” - is the Democrat MO.

Anonymous said...

Most cops are in favor of most gun laws, let’s back the blue!

Anonymous said...

The prison system was more self sustaining back then, I thought prison was supposed to be a place no one wants to go?

Room Service. May I Mop Your Cell Floor Please said...

"...because it's who we are, because that's our values." (March 8, 2023 at 4:04 PM)

So, it's 'our values' to coddle those who wind up in prison for disrespecting our values?

No! Maybe it's not our values to whip them, use billy clubs or put them in 'the hole' for five days; but, it's not our values to give them access to computers, provide menu options, let them lounge around in the exercise yard and allow them to decide whether or not they will engage in meaningful work while incarcerated.

If the latter represents YOUR values, you're damned sure in the minority.

Anonymous said...

Because “making them mad enough to vote” - is the Democrat MO.

Very accurate...probably for both parties, just to a lesser extent for Conservatives.

Anonymous said...

"If you can't trust a trustee, who can you trust?"

While it's entirely possible for a trusty to be a trustee, it's not that common.

It's also possible for an executioner to be an executrix, but that's not yet happened in Mississippi.

Anonymous said...

When prisoners had to work and “Black Annie” could be used to keep them in line, we had a lot less crime. When Parchman was a plantation the prisoners grew their own food and the taxpayer was not on the hook to house and feed them. This judge ruined a good thing.

Federal judges have been a detriment to Mississippi. I guess Sid is just more enlightened than the rest of us and is fine with convicts not having to support themselves. Somehow what we have now is better in his eyes I guess.

Anonymous said...

Sid's idea of hardship is the cabin A/C unit kicking off for four hours at Neshoba and having to call in the County work detail to fan the elite.

Anonymous said...

What is funnier than satire is when a goober like @5:30 am on March 9 reads it and works himself into a spluttering moral dudgeon.

Anonymous said...

@3:27, my coffee came out my nose.

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If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

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