Mississippi: The Reformer

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Fred Jones, 65, of Sunflower County, Miss., is a man of several parts: he is a prosperous Delta cotton planter, onetime director of the state's segregationist White Citizens' Council, and a reform-minded penologist. Several years ago, as a member of the Mississippi Senate and chairman of its penitentiary committee, he became dedicated to trying to make over the state prison at Parchman, a grim, swampy place noted for its liberal use of the lash. "I had a lot of ideas about prison reform," says Jones, "but they were either killed or watered down next to nothing in the legislature. I figured the only way I could get some of them into practice was to come to Parchman as superintendent." He did just that, using his political prestige and his friendship with Governor Ross Barnett to gain Parchman's wardenship in 1960. By last week Jones had proved one thing for certain: the reformer's life is a hard one.

Under Jones, the Mississippi convict's lot became better—much better. Out went the lash—long known as "Black Annie." Jones permitted Parchman's prisoners to receive their wives in cottages on conjugal visits. He organized a hillbilly band to amuse his wards. He broadened an understandably popular travel-and-furlough program for trustworthy prisoners. There were, of course, some setbacks. Example: a convicted murderer returned on furlough to his home town, and his wife asked local authorities to keep her in jail until her husband went back to Parchman.

Then last March came the case of Dale ("Cowboy") Morris, 36, serving a twelve-year sentence for manslaughter. In Parchman, Morris had behaved himself and become a trusty; he also displayed considerable interest in furthering Warden Jones's reform program. Back at Fort Smith, Ark., he told Jones, he owned a fine stud horse whose services he would gladly contribute to Parchman's animal farm. With written permission from Governor Barnett, Jones sent Morris, along with two guards, off to fetch the horse. The guards and the horse came back. Morris didn't, and not until last week was he captured in a Tulsa, Okla., bar, a loaded pistol tucked in his belt.

The Morris escape was the last straw for the Mississippi Penitentiary Board, which tried to fire Reformer Jones. But Governor Barnett defended his man in the Morris episode. Asked he: "If you can't trust a trusty, who can you trust?" Last week, even before Morris was recaptured, the board gave way to Barnett's pressure, rescinded its decision: Jones would remain—although obviously on terms of good behavior.