Ghosts of Mississippi: My Trip To See Marc Emery in Yazoo

Marc Emery – the former publisher of Cannabis Culture Magazine and Pot TV, founder of the B.C. Marijuana Party, and my former boss – spent his 54th birthday yesterday locked in a medium security prison in Yazoo, Mississippi.
Marc Emery – the former publisher of Cannabis Culture Magazine and Pot TV, founder of the B.C. Marijuana Party, and my former boss – spent his 54th birthday yesterday locked in a medium security prison in Yazoo, Mississippi.

Marc, a Vancouver-based businessman and political activist, was condemned to a five-year term behind U.S. bars, by the governments of both Canada and the United States, in return for his tireless devotion to political activism and large financial contributions to reforming drug laws in North America and around the world.

His oppressors said it was for the crime of shipping millions of marijuana seeds to the U.S., but admitted under their breath (and in an official DEA press release) that his arrest was a “significant blow” to “the marijuana legalization movement.”

After being extradited to the U.S. by Stephen Harper and the Conservatives and pinballed around the country to various prisons, he now spends his days and nights at Federal Correctional Institution Yazoo City Medium in Yazoo City, Mississippi. He is eligible for early release in 876 days, on July 9, 2014.

Marc was my boss but also a good friend, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to travel to Yazoo at the end of January, 2012 to visit him.

Marc and I keep in touch via a direct electronic mail system provided by the prison, but it had been 17 months since I had seen him in person, and that was only to witness him sentenced in a Seattle courtroom. The last time we spoke in person was even earlier, and I missed my friend terribly. I felt like the image in my head of the Real Marc – the amazing person I had grown to love, the full-package-deal that only long, in-depth personal conversations with the man could illustrate – was beginning to get a little hazy. I needed some Marc time.

So, with my lovely girlfriend Carina along for the adventure, I caught a 7am flight out of YVR on Friday, January 27 – Mississippi-bound – not sure exactly what to expect upon arriving in this very Southern state. After eight hours of airplanes and airport layovers, we arrived at the airport in Jackson, Mississippi.

Considering Jackson is the state capital and the most populous city in Mississippi, I was expecting a somewhat bigger airport. I guess compared to the gigantic George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, where we’d spent a three-hour layover, everything seemed like small potatoes.

We acquired our rental car at about 5:30pm Central Standard Time and set out on a 40-mile drive to our hotel in Yazoo. At first we were lost and cursing the limited map provided by the rental car company and our pathetic lack of orienteering skills. This was why the clerk suggested paying an extra fee for a GPS locator. We drove past a steakhouse or three while attempting to navigate with the useless map. With no working 21st Century electronic gadget or Internet connection in sight, we decided to stop at a roadside hotel for directions.

The hotel shared a parking lot with a stripmall-style complex and Carina and I quickly noticed several backlit signs in a row reading “US Navy Recruiting Center,” “US Army Recruiting Center,” and “US Air Force Recruiting Center.” American flags, some obscenely large, twisted in the wind on flagpoles above many of the buildings.

“We definitely aren’t in Canada anymore,” we both agreed.

With a better map and directions from the helpful hotel desk clerk, we hit the freeway for the hour-long drive to Yazoo. It was a beautiful drive that showcased a rainbow of Mississippi landscapes including green fields, brown rolling hills, haunting forests, and lots of swamps – as well a seemingly disproportionate number of steakhouses. Many, many steakhouses.

It was dark when we arrived at the Hampton Inn in Yazoo. The hotel wasn’t on the main road, but several roads past a residential area and deeper into rural pastures. The building looked like the newest thing we had seen since arriving in Mississippi and the desk clerk said the establishment was only about a year old. It was obvious the hotel owners had noticed the demand for decent lodging for visitors of several local prisons and built the inn less than 10 minutes from Yazoo Medium security.

That night we ordered dinner from the local Pizza Hut and hit the pillows early to get enough sleep before our 6am wake-up call.

We stopped a small grocery store on the way to the prison in the morning to load-up on $40 worth of quarters. The workers at the store knew the drill, and told us people come in every weekend for quarters. The change is necessary to purchase items from several vending machines inside the prison; the only source of food during the seven-hour visits.

We arrived at the prison at 8am and didn’t spend much time in the sterile waiting-room before being led through the metal-detectors and a set of large doors. The opening scene of the movie The Blues Brothers flashed through my mind as we made our way past large rolls of concertina wire and a tall fence with the clanking of the metal doors behind us.

Through an open courtyard and another set of doors and we were inside the visitors area, which was an open room about the size of two or three school classrooms, with rows of plastic seating, a few small tables, and a row of vending machines. There were bathrooms for men and women – separate doors for prisoners, guards, and visitors – and a raised desk platform where the guards kept watchful eyes over the room.

Our first day with Marc was fantastic. He had a big smile on his face and we laughed together for much of the visit. He looked better than in recent pictures I’d seen and even had a nice tan.

“You can stay outside all day if you want to,” he told us, “and the sun is shining most of the time.”

We filled him in on many of the good and not-so-good times we’d had since his extradition and imprisonment, and he regaled us with several amazing tales from inside The Big House.

We talked about the upcoming Citizen Marc movie, which is due out for release later in 2012. He told us more about his fight with the antibiotic-resistant superbug MRSA and described in detail the terrible conditions at his former Georgia prison, D. Ray James.

We talked about the fact that many of Marc’s fellow inmates have also been locked-up for non-violent drug crimes, sometimes for shockingly long sentences, the vast majority of them black or latino.

We discussed Obama’s refusal to respond to petitions asking him to pardon Marc, and talked about Ron Paul’s chances in the Republican Primaries and the Texas Congressman’s hopes of becoming the next President of the United States. Paul has promised, if elected, to pardon all non-violent prisoners of the Drug War.

Joining us in the large open visitors room were a few other groups of prisoners and their guests. They were men – some young, some old – sitting with their wives and kids, brothers and sisters, or moms and dads. Some of them were holding hands, some smiling and laughing, and some crying. I was sad when I realized this empty, off-white visitation room was the only place many of these families had to make memories with each other. A few weekend moments sitting on hard plastic chairs were the only ones some of these kids would spend with their daddies for a long time. Too many lives ruined for nothing.

Three o’clock in the afternoon came sooner than we expected and our time with Marc was over for the day. We were sad to leave, but would be back the next day for another seven hours. Once we’d left the prison, Carina said, on two separate trips to the bathroom, she noticed women visitors crying to themselves in the stalls. Again, I thought, too many lives ruined for nothing.

After our visit, Carina and I took Marc’s advice and went for a beautiful drive through three small towns just south-east of Yazoo City called Ridgeland, Madison and Canton. We found the only Starbucks in the immediate area inside a Target department store and got jacked-up on caffeine for the drive back to Yazoo.

Heading back, we stopped at a Piggly Wiggly grocery store and picked up some fresh fruit and other foodstuffs for dinner. We found a killer radio station,WMPR 90.1, which was playing blues, funk, and rock from predominantly black artists. We estimated that 90% of the people we’d seen since arriving in Mississippi were African American.

One thing that stood out was how nice and friendly everyone seemed. Everyone went out of their way to acknowledge our presence and say hello. Coming from frigid Vancouver, where no one dares make eye contact with each other unless absolutely necessary, we couldn’t help but notice the difference. Nods, big smiles, waves, and hellos from complete strangers were the norm. Activist Catharine Leach, who visited Marc in October of 2011, reported the same phenomenon. They don’t call it Southern Hospitality for nothing, I thought.

Day two with Marc was just as great as the first. We reminisced with the Prince of Pot about stories from his past that neither Carina nor I had heard before, and we spilled several jars of beans about events in our own lives. We also discussed time-travel fiction, the comedy stylings of Bill Maher and Chris Rock, and Marc’s bass guitar playing in a prison band.

At one point, Carina was scolded by a female prison guard for having too many buttons undone on her shirt and showing just the slightest bit of cleavage. That’s a no-no she was told, and instructed to button-up.

We used our surplus of quarters to purchase “food” from the vending machines. Marc had some kind of frozen chicken nuggets and Carina and I had a frozen pizza. We bought another frozen pizza for Marc, but it was covered with fuzzy blue patches of mold. Everything was cooked in a small microwave on a table between the vending machines and tasted pretty good for vending machine food that is probably made of over 50% cardboard.

Our time on Sunday seemed to disappear even faster than on Saturday, and before we knew it, we had to say good-bye. Though we tried our best not to show it, we were all sad the weekend was over. Before we left, we discussed plans to visit again in the near future, which cheered me up a bit.

Marc is undoubtedly the most positive person I’ve ever met in my life. Despite being separated from his loving wife Jodie and having his business and freedom denied him in a most heinous fashion, he is optimistic about the future and actually trying to have fun. He sees the light at the end of the tunnel, and that’s where his gaze is focused.

Before we returned home, we decided to explore the prison town that is Yazoo City, and were surprised to find almost no town left. According to the 2000 census, the population of Yazoo was 14,550, but on that Sunday we saw less than 30 people over the whole day.

Yazoo looked like a ghost town that had been hit by a tornado. Most of the city’s Main Street was lined with old brick buildings, and in some spots, just the facades of old brick buildings. Most of the upper windows in nearly all the buildings were broken and the majority of the shops were completely abandoned.

We walked, stunned, through the streets as I snapped picture after picture with my camera. See my shots in the galleryA Trip to Yazoo, Mississippi on Flickr:

Drivers of the few cars that passed made sure to wave, and we waved back. One man, named Billy, stopped his car for a few minutes and told us the town had been the same way since he was a kid in the 60s or 70s. Two young Southern boys named Taylor and Will said many of the old “New York” style apartments had been torn down, leaving only sets of cement stairs to nowhere. Another man who galloped through downtown on a horse named Strawberry said he’d lived in Yazoo his whole life and it had looked like that since he could remember.

As it turns out, Yazoo was hit by a tornado – in 2010, though it was mostly a ghost town for years before that. A read through the Yazoo City wikipedia page reveals a town history fraught with peril and sorrow; subjected over the years to floods, fires, repeated yellow fever epidemics, and the loss of a major town shipyard that provided the townspeople with jobs.

Good place to put a prison, I guess.

The town seemed to me to represent a microcosm of the foreboding future of the United States and Canada if something doesn’t change very soon.

If we continue down the destructive path of neglecting our economies and the basic functions of our governments, doing nothing to reverse increasing levels of poverty and despair, allowing the destruction of the middle class, imprisoning mass amounts of our own citizens, and allowing the conversion of our economies into what is virtually a slavery-based system, many more cities in North America will likely resemble this ghost of Mississippi.

If we instead make substantial reforms to our current justice and political systems through the continued work of selfless activists like Marc Emery and many others, we can fill our towns with free people instead of filling our countries’ prisons.

Find out more about Marc Emery at Find out how to make a difference as an activist – read Marc’s “Advice for Aspiring Activists” on Cannabis Culture.

Jeremiah Vandermeer is editor of Cannabis Culture. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


Jeremiah Vandermeer
Jeremiah Vandermeer

Jeremiah Vandermeer is Cannabis Culture Chief of Operations and Editor of Cannabis Culture Magazine & Pot TV.