08/01/2010 - 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.
What Mississippi's experience demonstrates, says Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' Public Safety Performance Project, is that "state leaders from both parties are finding that there are large numbers of lower-risk offenders who can be held accountable in ways that are more effective and a lot less expensive than a $29,000-a-year taxpayer-funded prison cell."
Read the full article, Mississippi's Corrections Reform on Governing Magazine's Web site.