OXFORD — Unlike in some Mississippi prison controversies of the past, nobody’s talking about trusties in the current crisis.
Trusties are prisoners who are trusted enough to be given a certain amount of privileges and authority in exchange for performing certain duties.
For generations, trusties, many of them convicted killers, were assigned grounds and household duties at the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion, and the governor often pardoned them at the end of his term.
Mississippi ended that practice after a storm of criticism of outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour’s decision to pardon four murderers and one robber who were mansion trusties during his second term.
Stokes McMillan, in his 2009 book, “One Night of Madness,” described the way Parchman operated in the 1940s.
It was more like a plantation than a prison, 20,000 acres of rich Delta soil spread out over 46 square miles in Sunflower County.
Nearly 2,000 men and women prisoners were segregated along racial and gender lines into groups of 100 to 150 inmates living in their own field camps, at least a half-mile apart, across the prison land.
A prison employee, designated as a sergeant, ran each camp. Maintaining control was primarily the job of long-term inmates called trusties.
Other trusties, called shooters, patrolled on horseback carrying rifles. If a trusty shot and killed or injured an escaping prisoner, he was given a pardon by the governor.
If an escapee eluded the shooters, the prison had dogs to track him. Trusties usually cared for and handled the dogs.
Court rulings in the early 1970s led to the end of trusties being used as guards and also ended the forced labor that was being put on convicts at Parchman Farm, as it was originally called.
In its early days, the prison was required to pay for itself and even make a profit for the state.
Inmates grew various crops, including cotton, corn and vegetables, as well as livestock, and processed much of what they produced.
Many of the inmates were abused. A leather strap could be applied to recalcitrant workers and troublemakers.
It was a brutal system, but there were fewer disturbances and budgetary problems in those days. And you can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t less brutal than what’s been going on lately.
Perhaps the most famous trusty in Parchman history was a man known as Hogjaw Mullen. I first heard about him in a political science class at Ole Miss in the 1950s and still remember the professor, lecturing on the Mississippi penitentiary system, referring to him as “Mr. Hogjaw.”
The Hogjaw Mullen at Parchman wasn’t Curtis “Hogjaw” Mullen, who had been a talented boxer.
According to McMillan’s book, when Clarence Grammer returned to Parchman for his second incarceration, he was aware that the toughest inmates could become trusties because the sergeants depended on them to intimidate other prisoners and keep order in the camps.
Grammar told fellow prisoners he was the retired boxer, Hogjaw Mullen, took on the former boxer’s identity and backed up his claim with his fists.
He later became one of the dog handlers and aided law enforcement around the state in capturing fugitives, one of whom was the main character in McMillan’s book.
Grammer (aka Hogjaw Mullen) finally got out of the penitentiary after multiple stays and died in Greenwood in the 1970s, where he was living under his assumed name, according to McMillan’s book.
Another Parchman trusty was responsible for one of former Gov. Ross Barnett’s best quotes.
Cowboy Dale Morris, a former dude ranch hand who had a reputation of being handy with horses and ladies, convinced the powers that be that he could secure a fine stallion in Arkansas the prison could use for breeding purposes.
So the prison superintendent sent Morris, along with two guards, to Fort Smith to get the horse. Morris convinced the two guards to return with the horse while he stayed behind for a few hours to get married.
Several days later when Morris was arrested in another state and it came to light what had happened, the governor — who apparently had approved the trip — opined: “If you can’t trust a trusty, who can you trust?”
• Charles M. Dunagin is the retired editor and publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb. He lives in Oxford.