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Convicts Used as Servants : Mississippi Prisoners Wait on the Governor

May 29, 1988|KATHY EYRE | Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — Convicted murderer Frank Gholar owes his freedom and a well-paying job to Mississippi's resumption of an old Southern tradition, using prison inmates as servants in the antebellum governor's mansion.

Only prisoners convicted of violent crimes qualify to serve the state's first family, and inmates facing life sentences are preferred, says Joseph Nix, director of executive security at the mansion.

"They tend to make the best workers," Nix says, explaining that the "lifers" have the most to gain if they don't betray the governor's trust.

For four years, Gholar whipped up everything from gourmet French sauces to down-home corn bread in the kitchen of the white-pillared governor's mansion, built in 1842. When Gov. Bill Allain left office last January, he kept the tradition of commuting the sentences of his faithful servants, and Gholar is now on the payroll of a Hazlehurst oil company owner he met while at the mansion.

Isolated Penitentiary

Gholar, a 42-year-old former oil field worker, recalls serving time at the isolated state penitentiary at Parchman in the Mississippi Delta. "I've been behind those walls and fences," he says. "You go to Parchman and you think that's it. But it isn't if you try to improve yourself."

He is now working as a general repairman at Hood Petroleum Co. Inc. offices in Hazlehurst, but Gholar's employer says he plans to train him to become a manager of one of the Hood convenience stores.

"The program at the mansion gives you a chance to prove yourself," Gholar says. "Everybody ain't against you. They'll trust you."

Gholar was sentenced to life in prison for the 1981 fatal shooting of the woman he lived with in the small southern Mississippi town of Prentiss. He claimed that he shot her in self-defense.

No Previous Record

Gholar had no previous criminal record. But no matter how good his behavior at Parchman, Gholar probably would have stayed behind bars much longer than the minimum 10 years before he became eligible for parole if he hadn't been selected for the mansion post, says his new employer, Carroll Hood.

Hood is a good friend of Allain and visited the mansion often. He is also on the state parole board.

Gholar was among the four mansion servants whose sentences were commuted in January: two for murder and two for manslaughter. Nix, who has been at the mansion since 1965, says some previous governors had as many as eight inmates. Newly inaugurated Gov. Ray Mabus has four inmates cooking, cleaning and doing other odd jobs.

The inmates live in a trailer behind the mansion. Because of the housing situation, only male inmates qualify for the program, Nix says.

Gov. Bill Waller was the only Mississippi governor in recent years to refuse to use prison trusties.

Book Tells Tradition

A 1977 book co-authored by Waller's wife, Carroll, and David Sansing, a University of Mississippi history professor, "A History of the Mississippi Governor's Mansion," explains how the tradition of commuting the sentences of the mansion trusties began.

In 1912, Mississippi voters elected Earl Leroy Brewer governor and Theodore Bilbo, who later became governor and kingpin of state politics for many years, lieutenant governor. The administration was rife with political intrigue and Bilbo was indicted.

According to the book: "During the sensational bribery trial stemming from charges against Theodore Bilbo and his law partner, G.A. Hobbs, a series of anonymous threats against Gov. Brewer and his family forced the governor to take special precautions to protect his family."

Henry Trott, one of the trusties on duty at the mansion, was assigned to guard Brewer's 6-year-old daughter, Claudia, against the possibility of kidnaping. For several weeks Henry accompanied the small child whenever she left the mansion.

'Please Set Henry Free'

"Some time later," the book says, "Gov. Brewer discovered a note under his dinner plate. In his young daughter's scribbled hand the note read simply: 'Please set Henry free.' "

Although inmates had been used as servants at the governor's mansion throughout Mississippi's history, the Legislature passed a resolution in 1912 allowing the governor a small allowance for the prisoners' food and clothing.

"Customarily, only Negro prisoners who had been convicted of murder committed in passion were selected," Waller and Sansing wrote. "Beginning with Gov. Brewer and continuing through his successors, the inmates received an executive pardon following their service at the mansion. Partly due to the new pattern of race relations in Mississippi and in part due to general prison reform, and in spite of its record of success, the practice was discontinued in the Waller administration."

Practice Resumed

The practice was resumed when Gov. William Winter succeeded Waller in 1980.

Several Southern states have used inmates in their governors' mansions in the past. But Anthony Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Assn., says he doubts that more than a few governors use convicted murderers as servants today.

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