Rome: Community in the Shadow of Parchman Endures the Storm
Photos and Story by Eric J. Shelton | January 23, 2020
ROME — Storm clouds filled the sky and sirens of state highway patrol cars shrieked through the nearly empty streets of this small community on a recent Friday afternoon as troopers transported inmates from Mississippi State Penitentiary to a private prison just up the road.
Rome, located fewer than five miles from Parchman Farm in Sunflower County, was bracing for bad weather while enduring a political and human rights squall after one the nation’s most notorious prisons began to receive national media attention due to the living conditions of the inmates and recent violence that left several prisoners dead.
The unincorporated community is primarily African American and has a population of fewer than 200 people. A large number of the residents either work at Parchman or have retired from the prison. The village seems to be almost as guarded as the prison that sits in its backyard. Some residents sit on their porches and gaze with wonder as unfamiliar vehicles pass through. It is a community where most people know each other and could tell you exactly who lives in the area.
Only a few yards from the local post office, Lashunda Robinson sat on the front porch of her grandmother’s home on Main Street as she sought refuge from the rain. Robinson recalled brighter times in Rome and expressed concern for the inmates inside the prison. “We had so many fun days in Rome,” Robinson said. “We hate for all of this to be going on, and it’s so near to us.”
On Jan. 14, a tornado touched down in Rome, causing damage in the area without injury. Some homes were destroyed and farm silos were left in ruin. Former correctional officers Perry Miller and Larry Spicer helped the locals with tornado cleanup on Mary Street, just a few streets over from Main Street and Robinson’s grandmother’s home. Miller stood tall as he talked about his experience in the military and his time working at the prison. Pride filled his voice as he talked about Rome and his passion for the Mississippi Delta.
“Mississippi is my life, and Rome is my love for life and liberty,” Miller said. “I’ve had opportunities to live in Europe, Africa and Asia, but I chose this (Rome).” Miller worked for the Mississippi Department of Corrections for six years until he retired. He left no question about where he stood regarding the inmates’ living conditions. “My personal opinion is that it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Miller said. “If you do wrong, you are going to live wrong.”
Miller’s friend Larry Spicer stood next to his long-time friend with his arms crossed, shaking his head in disagreement with Miller. Spicer had been a corrections officer for 28 years. He was also in the military and drove trucks after retiring from the prison. As his friend expressed his opinion on the current state of conditions for the inmates at Parchman Farm, Spicer quickly and humbly interjected: “We are all human, and we make mistakes.” Spicer later went on to further express his personal opinion on the rights of the inmates. “Everybody should be treated the same, and the law should respect everybody,” Spicer said. “They got to have a decent place to sleep, a shower and food…the basics. … All of them aren’t bad. Some of them are probably just caught up in the system.”
One block down the street from Miller and Spicer, retired correctional officer James Gwin stands next to a fence where a slender horse roamed the nearly barren lot. Gwin was waiting on a Red Cross representative to bring a tarp to his home so he could help provide temporary relief to those affected by the tornado.
Gwin was a the director of transportation for Parchman. He expresses frustration with county government officials not knowing where Rome is or acknowledging the poor conditions. “We don’t have a mayor, so we are sort of like a village because we’re not big enough,” Gwin said. “So, we get the bad end of the stick.” Gwin says that he has had conversations with state employees, and they can’t locate the community on the map. “You’re accepting my tax money and you don’t know where Rome is?” Gwin said. “Something is wrong with that picture.”
Gwin also expressed his opinion on why things are awry at Parchman Farm. He said he feels that low pay is part of the reason for the issues inside the prison. “If you ain’t really got your mindset on how to live, you can’t live off of the pay they’re getting down there.
“I feel for the inmates. I feel for the officers because they are both in the same boat.”
Back on Mary Street, the Rev. Joe Young, pastor of Calvary Chapel at Parchman, stops at Silver Star M.B. Church in search of its pastor to discuss the disaster relief efforts. He spearheaded the operation to get the Red Cross to come to the area to provide meals. Young’s church is across from the prison. He says that he and his church members have been concerned about the conditions at Parchman for a while.
“Many of us in the community have been concerned about the prison since about 2000,” Young said. “It seems there has been a concerted effort to encourage retirement of men who have served a number of years with experience, and to save money bringing in people with inexperience to be guards.”
Young went on to explain how he believes that the male inmate to female guard ratio plays a factor. “We seem to have a large preponderance of young women who are guarding men, many of whom are seasoned criminals, and they are easily threatened by the men.”
Similar to Gwin, Young feels that salary is also an additional factor. “As there is less funding to pay staff, you have to get less experienced staff who are not getting tenured increases and we are seeing the fallout from that.”
When the media spotlight fades, community members will continue to rebuild after the storms and prepare for those to come. The tucked away community of people living in the shadow of the state’s largest prison has diverse thoughts on the institution and its conditions, but the love and concern for their home is shared by all.