We are writing this Editor’s Note at a time when things feel fractured, fraught with grievances and finger pointing, a time when violence and swiftness to anger seem to be the impulse for decision making. There is little room, it seems, for finding commonality and peace, shared humanity.
If we have accomplished anything in “Issue 18” of Juke Joint, it is our hope that we have shown the value in advocating for our shared humanity. The voices in this issue are entirely those of prisoners in Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman. These are voices that not only deserve to be heard and published, but speak to this moment when many voices in this world are silenced—in the name of religion, politics, war, and all of the above. These writers deserve our attention, even more unequivocally because, as the Justice Department noted hardly a year ago, “years of [Mississippi Department of Corrections’] deliberate indifference has resulted in serious harm and a substantial risk of serious harm to persons confined at Parchman.” In a corrections system rife with injustice, indifference, and systemic deficiencies, it is critical as ever to lift up these voices. Mack Watts Jr. says it best in his piece “Dignity for My Family.” He writes, “Even though I'm incarcerated, there has to be some concerned consideration for dignity.” What could be more explicit than that? Or as Raymond Darrell Ford’s character in “The Water Mama Says God Makes” ponders late at night in the cotton fields filled with rain, “it's as if I'm in the middle of a great lake, and God can see me out there in the water Mama says God makes.” All of us want to be seen, heard, and perhaps most importantly, to feel that our words have value. Indeed, when the correctional system fails to uphold the constitutional rights of the prisoners housed within its system, we must all bear the responsibility of hearing their cry for dignity. As Ford writes, we must “see” them.
Juke Joint has always been driven towards building a space for everyone. In doing so, it was the hope that the magazine would be a welcoming, safe haven for voices that are often overlooked and under published, a dock for unmoored ships. There are so many voices in the landscape of literary magazines and publishing that have been underserved. And we think it is our duty (and it is our mission as a magazine) to work against that prevailing culture. Which is why this particular issue feels vital to that mission.
Many of the writers in this issue write in several genres, on a daily basis, and this issue alone could not possibly encompass the breadth of the work these men produce. Nor does it come close to capturing the voices of all those men and women in MDOC’s system who remain unheard and unpublished. Moreover, this issue is merely a soundbite of the writing of a handful of authors in one facility. We live in a nation of prison systems, indeed, we are the most incarcerated nation in the world, and Mississippi has an incarceration rate of 1,031 prisoners per 100,000 people (including prisons, jails, immigration detention centers, and juvenile justice facilities). This means that Mississippi locks up a higher percentage of its people than any democracy on earth, according to the Prison Policy Institute. This issue will forever fail to lift those many voices that are currently underserved and unpublished. We hope, however, that it is a step in the right direction.
Alison reached out to Dean in May with, as the subject of her email suggested, “an idea.” The idea, in short, was publishing a special issue of Juke Joint on writing from Mississippi State Penitentiary. The hope was that we would, with the help of a grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council, publish a print version before the end of the year. We knew from that first email exchange this was something we were called to do.
In a moment when many go unseen and unheard, we believe this issue will allow readers to see and hear the voices of some of these men out there in the fields of Sunflower County.
- Dean Julius & Alison Turner