Trusty system (prison)

Penal security system

The trusty system was a system that Mississippi State Penitentiary and other prisons used to control prisoners. In the trusty system, some prisoners were given more power than others. These trusties guarded the other prisoners.

The trusty system worked out well for prison officials because they did not have to pay civilian (non-prisoner) guards to control the prisoners. However, the trusties kept the other prisoners under control through physical abuse, torture, fear, and humiliation. Finally, in 1974, a federal court ruled that the trusty system, and the whole prison, were violating the United States Constitution by giving out cruel and unusual punishments. This ruling ordered the trusty system to be shut down.[1]



Mississippi State Penitentiary was built in 1901.[2] It was originally called Parchman Farm.[2] Mississippi law said that the prison had to pay for itself – and make a profit for the state. In other words, the prison had to pay for everything it needed itself, and make money for the state.[3]

Prison labor at Parchman Farm under the trusty system. Anyone who stepped out of line could be shot at by a "trusty shooter"

Basically, this meant Parchman was like a business for the state of Mississippi. It was like a business that used slave labor – the state made money without having to pay for anything, including workers' salaries.[3] In fact, one year, Parchman earned $180,000 for the state of Mississippi – not including what it had to spend on itself.[3] The Governor of Mississippi, James K. Vardaman, even said the prison was run “like an efficient slave plantation.”[4] This hurt other local businesses, which did have to pay their workers and other costs.

The prison warden controlled the prison completely. Nobody from outside of the prison ever came in to see what was going on. Because of this, nobody outside the prison knew what Parchman was really like. For example, in 1911, the New York Times wrote an article congratulating the Mississippi prison system for figuring out how to keep people in prison and make money at the same time.[5] Also, because no outsiders ever came into Parchman, the conditions and abuse at the prison changed very little from the time it opened in 1903 until the Gates v. Collier case forced it to change.[3]

The prison had approximately 16,000 acres (65 km2) of good farmland.[2] Prisoners grew cash crops (crops which prison officials could sell to make money), like cotton. They also bred livestock.[2]

Trusties control the prison


As of 1973, there were about 1,900 inmates at Parchman.[6] Two-thirds were black. Black and white inmates were kept apart.[6] However, Mississippi law said that the prison could hire 150 staff members at most, so the prison would not cost too much.[7] This meant there were about 13 inmates for every staff member. There just were not enough staff members to guard the prisoners, make the prison work every day, take care of the farm, and do everything else they needed to do.

With so few staff members, the inmates did all the farm work. Also, with so few guards, inmate trusties did most of the guardian and punishing other prisoners. Trusties also did most of the paperwork, office work, and cleaning. Basically, the trusties ran the prison system.[4][8]

Abuse of prisoners


In the trusty system, some trusties had more power than others. The most powerful were the "trusty shooters."[2] They were allowed to carry rifles and shoot at or around prisoners who made mistakes. Sometimes they hit them with their shots.[4] They whipped prisoners who did not pick enough cotton in a day.[9] They were in charge of the inmates' barracks, fields, and the farms. They could give punishment, and they could also suggest more punishment in the "special punishment area."[10]

Very few people supervised what the trusty shooters did. For example, the farm's camps of black inmates were supervised by one white sergeant. Under him, black trusty shooters, who were serving sentences for murder, carried rifles and enforced discipline.[9]

End of the system


For years, there were protests over Parchman's abuse of prisoners' civil rights. Eventually, a civil rights lawyer named Roy Haber began to collect evidence of the abuse.[9] With Haber as their lawyer, four prisoners filed a lawsuit in federal court, saying that conditions at the prison were cruel and unusual. They said that prison trusties punished and tortured prisoners in ways that were painful and humiliating on purpose.[11]

A United States District Court, and then the more powerful Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, strongly agreed with the prisoners. Both courts ruled that Parchman was violating the prisoners' constitutional rights. Both courts found that trusties gave prisoners all kinds of cruel and unusual punishments, including:[1][11]

A usual prison camp, before the courts made the prison build new ones in the 1970s
  • Beatings
  • Shooting at or around prisoners, sometimes hitting them
  • Taking away prisoners' clothes
  • Turning fans on prisoners while they were naked and wet
  • Not giving inmates food, mattresses, or items for hygiene
  • Handcuffing prisoners to fences or bars
  • Using a cattle prod on prisoners
  • Forcing prisoners to stand for long periods of time
  • Putting inmates in stress positions (positions that are painful)

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Parchman to end its trusty program; racial segregation at the prison; and all other cruel, unusual, and unconstitutional practices immediately.[1][12]

After the court decision, other states that used the trusty system had to stop using it too. These states included Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas.[12] However, some states, like Texas, continued to use trusty systems (renamed "building tenders") until the 1980s, when Federal Judge William Wayne Justice, in the case of Ruiz v. Estelle, 503 F. Supp. 1265 (S.D. Tex. 1980), ordered Texas to end the system.[13]



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Gates v. Collier, 501 F.2d 1291 (5th Cir. 1974).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 "Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman) Photo Collections". Mississippi Department of Archives and History. State of Mississippi. Archived from the original on March 22, 2016. Retrieved March 29, 2016.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Mitchell, Dennis J. (2014). A New History of Mississippi. University of Mississippi Press [online version]. ISBN 978-1626741621.[permanent dead link]
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Winter, Margaret; & Hanlon, Stephen F. (2008). Parchman Farm Blues: Pushing for Prison Reforms at Mississippi State Penitentiary. Litigation 35 (1): 1-8.
  5. "Convicts Who Are In Demand After Serving Terms: Mississippi Trains Negro Criminals to Be Such Good Farmers that They Quickly Secue Places – Penitentiary Farm Pays and Makes Money" (PDF). The New York Times. June 4, 1911. Retrieved March 29, 2016.
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Troubled Parchman prison gets new assist. director". Baltimore Afro-American. Baltimore, Maryland. January 2, 1973. Retrieved March 29, 2016.
  7. United States Court of Claims, District of Columbia, Court of Appeals (1907). The Federal Reporter. Government Printing Office. p. 402.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. Channels, Sol (1985). "The Trustee System". Prisons and Prisoners: Historical Documents. Haworth Press. pp. 160–163. ISBN 978-0866564861.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Robben, Janine (2007). "Lessons from Parchman Farm". Oregon State Bar Bulletin. Oregon State Bar. Retrieved March 29, 2016.
  10. Goldman, Robert M. (1997). Review of Oshinsky, David M. Worse Than Slavery? Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (Book Review). H-Net Reviews. Retrieved March 29, 2016.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Gates v. Collier, 349 F. Supp. 881 (1972) (N.D. Miss. 1972).
  12. 12.0 12.1 Gioia, Ted (2006). Work Songs. Oxford University Press. p. 201. ISBN 978-0822337263.
  13. Walker, Donald R. (June 12, 2010). "Convict Lease System". Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved March 29, 2016.