Billy Joe Russell

Published on January 12th, 2023 | by Billy Joe Russell


“Christmas at Alcorn Correctional Facility” photographs by Gaetano Catelli

Louis Bourgeois in red tunic; his law-student daughter on his right; art teacher Melody Shinn on his left.

Louis Bourgeois, hails from Slidell, Louisiana. He used to teach poetry at the University of Mississippi. But, he had a hankerin’ to help the most powerless among us. So in 2014, Louis founded Prison Writes Initiative (PWI) and began teaching creative writing (in which he has an MFA from Louisiana State University) to inmates at Mississippi State Penitentiary (aka “Parchman Farm”).

These efforts have resulted in three compilations (so far) of essays by prisoners, In Our Own Words: Writing From Parchman Prison, Unit 30: New Writings from Parchman Farm, and Mississippi Prison Writing.

More recently, Louis has been teaching existential philosophy (Nietzsche, Camus, Sarte, et al) to death row inmates at Parchman. (Many prisoners are more intellectually curious than readers might expect. Especially on death row, they have a lot of time on their hands for thinking about the big questions.)

Unlike inmates in other classes PWI sponsors, those on death row must remain in their cell. So Louis has to shout to be heard all the way to the end of the corridor of Parchman’s Cell Block 29. Out of respect for their fellow prisoners, inmates who don’t take the class turn down the volume of any electronic device they’ve been listening to, so that Louis can be heard by those who are enrolled in his course.

PWI has extended its outreach beyond Parchman Farm. It now runs classes in Marshall County Correctional Facility, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (women and teens), and Alcorn County Correctional Facility. Unlike Parchman, which is operated solely by the State of Mississippi, these three are run by Management & Training Corporation, a for-profit company. 

Louis’s goal is for PWI to hold classes in as many as feasible of the other 16 correctional facilities across the state of Mississippi. 

Christmas Party at Alcorn

The Alcorn County facility is a medium-security institution not far from the center of historic Corinth, Mississippi.

In January 2022, a recital was given at Alcorn by graduates of the poetry class PWI had offered. Last month, a Christmas party was thrown for students of the drawing class conducted there since September.

They weren’t available for the poetry recital, but for the Yuletide festival two God-fearing Christian women, Debbie Pastor, who grew up in Nassau County, NY, and SherryLynn Fox, a native of Oxford, MS, spent three days in advance cookin’ up a storm for the Christmas bash. 

Left: SherryLynn Fox. Right: Debbie Pastor.

They cooked so much food that it wouldn’t all fit into Debbie’s Fiat 500. So, Louis carted the overflow in his custom 1999 Jeep.

Louis Bourgeois, founder and executive director of PWI.

Joel Counce, a native of Booneville, came from The Daily Corinthian to write up the event for readers in the Alcorn County community. (The text of the party portion of this column is indebted to his article.)

Melody Shinn, originally from nearby Tishomingo County, has some two dozen years of experience as a design professional. She’s been on the Northeast Mississippi Community College Fine-Arts Faculty since 2008. She teaches at Alcorn every Thursday.

Melody Shinn, art teacher.

Melody noted that there is much more to these men than being in Alcorn. Of the 300 inmates, more than 80 submitted sample drawings as part of the application process. Only 10 were chosen for the class. They have a lot of talent, and she wants to help develop it. Notably, drafting skills will be transferable to construction work and similar fields when the men are back on the outside.

Michael Bray

Michael Bray of Tishomingo County comments that the course relieves stress. Usually, the men get out of the “zone” they’re housed in only one hour a day — to be outdoors in the yard. The class is added time out of the zone, and working on homework for a number of hours between classes, instead of numbing idleness, is another stress reliever.

Terry Jim spent six hours on each drawing.

Hailing from Newton, Terry Jim is a proud Mississippi Choctaw

In the 1830’s Mississippi’s Choctaws (along with tribes throughout the Southeast) were given a brutal choice by the US Government: Walk to harsher land in Oklahoma, or stay in Mississippi and give up their traditional way of life. (nb: Without exception, every large nation got large at the point of a sword and/or the barrel of a gun.) Some 13,000 Mississippi Choctaws made the journey, known as the Trail of Tears. Due to a combination of incompetence and indifference, thousands of Choctaws died along the way. 

One of the terms under which some Choctaws could stay in Mississippi was the acceptance of formal US citizenship. Ironically, they thus became the first non-Euro-descended American citizens.

Terry likes to stay focused on God’s word, and on gratitude. 

Timothy Johnson

When Timothy Johnson of Carthage was living on the outside, he worked in construction. He’s confident the skills he’s learning in drawing class will help his employment prospects after his release from Alcorn.

David Fair

As noted, part of the process for admission to the class was submitting a sample drawing. David Fair’s original submission is on the right; an example of his progress to date is on the left.

Justin Holladay

Justin Holladay titles the piece on the right as “E Zone, Bed 33”. It’s what he sees from his cell: cinder block walls, glass, security door, and a linoleum tile floor.

Scott Long
Timothy Perkins

Inmates painted Disney characters on a mural running along the cafeteria wall to show a friendly face to visitors, which sometimes include classes of young people from nearby schools.

The culinary high point of most weeks is a bologna sandwich on white bread. So the men greatly appreciated chowing down on the bounty provided by Debbie and Sherry: fried chicken, red-lobster-rolls, corn casserole, sweet-potato casserole, green beans, pinto beans, potato salad, and butter rolls. Plus, two cakes for dessert! (Louis supplied the soda.)

The class’s 2nd semester will begin later this month and continue until June. There will be a graduation ceremony to mark the event, and if the Good Lord’s willin’ — and the crick don’t rise — we’ll all be back to join the celebration.

All photos © Gaetano Catelli Studios 2023.

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