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Mississippi Taxpayers Fund Welfare Payments to Private Prisons

Mississippi Taxpayers Fund Welfare Payments To Private Prisons

by Ronald A. Young

Mississippi taxpayers will pay about $6 million a year to private and regional prisons for "ghost inmates" under a bill the legislature approved on March 26, 2001. The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) funding bill includes a provision to subsidize the regional and private facilities despite the absence of need of such facilities.

The provision will raise the number of prisoners at ten regional prisons from 200 to a new contracted amount of 230 and provides for 900 prisoners at the Delta Correctional Facility in Greenwood and the Marshall County Correctional Facility, both private prisons. The Delta prison is owned and operated by Nashvillebased Corrections Corporation of America, while Floridabased Wackenhut Corrections Corporation operates the Marshall County prison.

The state doesn't have the prisoners to fulfill the obligations under the bill, Corrections Commissioner Robert Johnson said. Taxpayers will pay about $2 million a year to private prisons and $4 million to regional prisons for what have been termed "ghost inmates," according to Johnson. "I guess that's where the old saying `politics makes strange bedfellows' comes from," he said. "Anytime you find a group of Mississippi legislators agreeing to guarantee a private enterprise a profit with taxpayers' money, you know there's got to be strange happenings."

Wackenhut president and chief operating officer, Wayne Calabrese, said Mississippi should honor its commitment to fill the 1,000bed Marshall County prison, even though Johnson says it doesn't have enough prisoners to do so. "We want to make sure the price we gave the state, which was based on full or nearly full occupancy, is in fact what we receive," Calabrese said.

Economics appears to be the motivating factor behind the provision in the funding bill, which was passed into law only after the House and Senate mustered a more than twothirds majority vote to override a veto of the bill by Governor Ronnie Musgrove. Some legislators have praised the regional jails and private prisons for creating jobs in economically struggling areas. State prisons currently have about 2,600 empty beds, and two additional 250bed regional prisons are awaiting construction in George and Chickasaw counties. House Penitentiary Committee Vice-Chairwoman Linda Coleman, DMound Bayou, said the regional prisons can't operate at 200 prisoners because they can't make enough money to pay the debt of their facilities, which is why the number of prisoners was increased. The legislation also includes $16.4 million to pay for the regional and private prisons' deficit.

Opponents of the bill said prisoners will have to be moved out of the State Penitentiary at Parchman and other state prisons to meet numerical targets. But this in itself might have been a good thing if it had been combined with an earlier suggestion by House Penitentiary Committee Chairman Bennett Malone, DCarthage, to close five old and decaying units at Parchman and ship some of the prisoners to private prisons. However, that suggestion was not included in the final bill.

In announcing his veto of the bill, Governor Musgrove said, "Our money ought to be put in areas of priority and not areas like ghost prison beds." Money spent on "ghost inmates" could be better spent on classroom supplies for teachers, he said. "Education, not prisons, must be our state's priority," Musgrove said after the Senate overturned his veto. "With this action today, the Legislature has not placed a priority on education."

State Senator Willie Simmons, DCleveland, said the state shouldn't be using prisons as economic development. "We shouldn't be building beds on the hope that we will need them some day," he said. Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore said that there are prisoners available in county jails who can be moved to regional and private prisons to meet the Legislature's mandate. But Corrections Commissioner Johnson said lawmakers are engaging in a shell game. "They are attempting to move inmates around in the system and still try to justify subsidizing private prisons. And you just can't get around that," he said. "Call it ghost inmates, call it anything you want to. But the fact remains it is paying for something we don't need."

Sources: ClarionLedger ;Associated Press.

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