A little over 20 years ago, Kim Rushing began a photography project on the grounds of Parchman State Penitentiary in Drew, Mississippi.
In 1994, he visited Parchman grounds two to three days a week, photographing the landscape and architecture of the penitentiary and eventually interviewing and photographing the inmates inside.
Rushing is the first outside photographer in history to ever photograph the inmates inside the penitentiary.
In “Parchman,” Rushing shows glimpses of a day in the life of the inmates. Many of the incarcerated men were allowed to tell their stories of what it is like being a prisoner.
Before Rushing began the project, he had done informal interviews with individuals in Mississippi to find out what they thought Parchman was like.
“Most of them thought it was three free meals a day, air conditioned cells, cable TV, and an education provided at the taxpayers expense,” said Rushing, stating that in fact many of the inmates could get an education that some Mississippians could not afford.
Rushing said many people are upset about those notions, so he asked administration and the inmates if they would like people to know what the Parchman Penitentiary was really like.
Eighteen out of 25 inmates agreed to be interviewed and photographed by Rushing.
Rushing pointed out in his book many of the differences of the inmates between 1994 and 1996.
There was one inmate in particular he said who had made a huge transformation in the two years he had been there.
His name was Terry Wilkins, in the 1994 photo, his clothes were cleaned and pressed, he had photos of his children on the wall, and cards that were sent to him.
In the 1996 photo, Wilkins was seen pinned against a wall in only a T-shirt and underwear with handcuffs behind his back.
Rushing said many of the inmates did not seem to change over a two or three year period.
“They were comfortable there or at least resigned, and their attitudes didn’t seem to change,” Rushing said.
“Parchman” displays journal entries written by many of the prisoners telling what their experience has been like since being in prison.
Rushing said he got to know the inmates without knowing what crime they had committed until later on but that did not change the way he looked at them before.
He said one inmate he got know was handsome, articulate, and intelligent, and he said he couldn’t tell he had murdered two people.
“One of the most valuable lessons I learned is that I can never judge somebody by how they look. I think I always knew that in my heart, but to actually experience it like that was a valuable lesson for me,” said Rushing.
Rushing’s graduate professor from the University of Texas, Mark Goodman, wrote the foreword for “Parchman.” Rushing said Goodman was the first person he thought of to write the foreword.
“Mark did this very powerful body of work where he photographed the same people for 25 years in Millerton, New York. It was a powerful body of work to see that kind of level of commitment to photograph something for a 25 year period,” Rushing said.
He said most of the guys are still in prison at Parchman, and there is one in his book who was executed.
Rushing has been teaching photography for 25 years at Delta State University, and his photographs have appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including New York Times and Garden and Guns.
“This is something I have been wanting to accomplish most of my life as a photographer, and it’s a great pleasure to actually hold this book in my hands and know that I’ve accomplished getting my photographs out there for people to see. It’s a real honor to be able to do it,” said Rushing.
This article was also published in The Bolivar Commercial Newspaper.
Photos are taken from Kim Rushing’s book Parchman.
Bottom photo taken by Jarquita.