Down on Parchman Farm

Christopher Epps thought he would follow the path of his family members and get his Ph.D. Instead, he made a career at one of Mississippi's most fabled prisons, working his way up to state corrections commissioner.
by | July 27, 2010 AT 6:15 PM
Mississippi prison commisioner Christopher Epps.

 Now, listen, you men. I don't mean no harm,

If you wanna do good, you better stay off old Parchman's Farm.

-Bukka White, "Parchman Farm Blues," 1940

Next month's issue of GOVERNING features a cover story about the reform of one of the nation's most fabled prisons, Mississippi's Parchman Farm. Founded in 1903 as a 16,000-acre working plantation, it's been attacked as a throwback to slavery by some, praised as a model penal farm by others, the site and inspiration of the lamentations of a generation of Delta bluesmen, Parchman has long cast its shadow over the Mississippi Delta, including my hometown of Greenville, Mississippi. So when I first heard about the unlikely partnership between the ACLU and the Mississippi Department of Corrections to reform Parchman, I was naturally intrigued.

Parchman didn't disappointment. The photos you'll see next month -- and the story you'll encounter -- is one of the most striking I've encountered in my time at GOVERNING. But it's the people I met reporting the story that fascinated my most, none more so than MIssissippi Departmetn of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps.

Epps, age 48, grew up in Tchula, Mississippi in a family of educators. "My mom, my dad, my stepdad, my aunt, my uncle, they all got Ph.Ds," says Epps. Initially, he planned to follow in their footsteps, earning an undergraduate degree in elementary education. That got him a job teaching math and science in Drew, a town of 2,000 souls, just eight miles south of Parchman. In 1982, after he'd been teaching for three years, Epps got a call asking if he'd like to come to work at a new medium security facility, Unit 29.

The call caught Epps off guard. He'd filled out an application at a Mississippi Valley State University years earlier but had never heard back from MDOC or, truth be told, expected to.

"I don't want to work up there," says Epps. He told the caller that he'd taken a job as a teacher. But MDOC persisted, telling Epps they could work around that. Epps relented and agreed to go to work at Unit 29 as a correctional officer on the third watch, from 4 pm to midnight, and, later, the midnight shift.

"It was hard getting to school those days," he says, "but I stuck it out, and then I started getting promoted."

In January 1985, Epps became a disciplinary hearing officer, with responsibility for investigating alleged rules violations. Six months later, he became a case manager. At that point, he stopped working as a teacher and made corrections his full-time career. In December 1988, Governor Ray Maybus appointed Epps to deputy superintendent at Parchman, with responsibility over security and for running day-to-day prison operations.

His realm was a large one. At the time, the Mississippi State Penitentiary (as Parchman is formally known) was the state's only prison. Its 18 units housed 5,781 inmates, served by 1,800 employees, set on 16,000 acres of farmland. The road from the front gate to the back gate stretched 5.4 miles. Parchman had its own post office, its own restaurant, its own grocery store, its own hospital, its own fire department, its own road crews, its own waste treatment plant, its own utility crews. Many employees lived on the prison grounds, including Epps himself, who lived in the first house on the right past the front entrance gate. He was 27 years old.

"I was the youngest deputy superintendent in the country," recalls Epps. "My wife asked me one day to go to Drew. I said, 'Well I am tied up; I need to make some rounds.' 'You haven't left the grounds in 6 months,' [she replied]. I didn't even realize it."

This is the house Epps and his family lived. Welcome to Parchman Farm.