WHEN the Grammy-winning world music producer and political activist Ian Brennan first approached Parchman Prison, the Mississippi state penitentiary, to ask whether he could record there, he started a ball rolling on a project that would yield extraordinary results. Brennan takes a particular interest in prisons, and the plight of those incarcerated. His previous prison recording, “I have no everything”, recorded the voices of those locked in Malawi’s maximum-security facility in Zomba. Such was its vibrant urgency, it earned a Grammy nomination in 2016.
Brennan tried for several years to get permission to record in Parchman, one of the world’s most notorious penal institutions. When it was finally given, with only a week’s notice, he was only allowed to record sound: no photographs and no video. The resulting recording is truly remarkable, in turns stark and mournful, and then joyful and hopeful. It seems to capture the authentic spiritual life of the Parchman prisoners.
Parchman is an awful place. Founded in 1901, the maximum-security penitentiary occupies 28 square miles of farmland, and houses death-row prisoners and the state execution chamber. In 2019, five prisoners were killed, and dozens more were injured, in a series of riots. Lawsuits filed the following year claimed that the prison was violent and rat-infested, and that prisoners lived in “abhorrent conditions”.
Long after slavery was outlawed, campaigners claimed that Mississippi authorities were circumventing legislation by “leasing” the majority African American prisoners to farmers, in effect re-enslaving them. Although conditions have improved markedly over recent years, the sonorous cries of the jailed men speak of the deep spiritual need still felt by those behind bars. One baritone simply, repeatedly, intones “Solve My Need” — perhaps the most authentic prayer that I have heard. In documenting their songs, Brennan has ensured that the plight of the incarcerated cannot be overlooked.
Parchman Prison Prayer: Some Mississippi Sunday Morning is released by Glitterbeat Records.