by Matthew T. Clarke
In a highly politicized move, the Mississippi Legislature passed a budget paying Wackenhut Corporation (WC) and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) millions of dollars for unneeded private prison bunks, despite Mississippi Governor Ronnie Musgrove's attempts to prevent it. At issue is how to house Mississippi's 19,000 plus state prisoners.
Faced with $1.4 million in federal court ordered fines due to overcrowding, Mississippi contracted with private companies to build and run five private prisons in Marshall, Leflore, and Wilkinson Counties, Meridian and Walnut Grove.
In 2001, amid criticism that new prisons were increasingly bring viewed by local officials as a tool for economic development, Musgrove vetoed efforts to build even more private prisons. However, the Legislature overrode Musgrove's veto, appropriating $6 million more than was needed to run the private and regional prisons. Subsequently, a report by a legislative watchdog lowered the number of prisoners required for private and regional prisons to break even. This led critics to accuse the government of paying for "ghost prisoners" as a form of corporate welfare [PLN, Nov. `01].
In 2002, state spending on prisons and lack of spending on education and Medicare again caused controversy. Nonetheless, the Legislature appropriated $233 million to the state's prison budget, allocating $54.7 million of it exclusively to fund existing private prisons. Calling the overfunding of private prisons "unconscionable," on April 9, 2002, Musgrove vetoed the funding allocation to private prisons.
In his veto message, Musgrove stated that, "once again, the special friends of the private prison industry won the day, funding fully private prisons at a higher level than our state and regional facilities."
Relying upon an opinion from Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore that Musgrove's partial veto was void because it only vetoed the portion of the bill dealing with how the $54.7 million must be spent, legislators failed to vote on a veto override.
Moore still insists the veto is void and legislators "didn't want to dignify a null veto with an override vote." However, Musgrove claims that he vetoed the funding itself and the legislators didn't try to override because he had enough support to sustain the veto. Nonetheless, Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee Chairperson Robert "Bunky" Huggins, R-Greenwood said that he could have overridden the veto.
Relying upon a part of the contracts with the private prison which allowed termination of the contracts if funds are not appropriated, on July 5, 2002, Musgrove had the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) send termination letters to each of the private prison contactors. This caused political turmoil with Musgrove's opponents like Moore claiming Musgrove had put the public safety at risk.
Chief among the complaints against MDOC and Musgrove was the lack of advance notice of the terminations.
Huggins said that when private prison officials "called me Sunday morning saying, `We just got a letter today that we'll be out of business tomorrow.' I said `You've got to be kidding me."
"They could just put the key in the mailbox and walk out," noted Huggins. Yet Huggins's concerns went beyond the issue of public safety when he noted that, "Somebody's got to pay for this prison out here. That's a $22 million investment."
"I don't think it speaks very well of the state when we enter into contracts with people and ask them to come and open business in the state and then we pass legislation that puts them out of business," said Huggins.
"I just can't do business in this manner," Moore said, "If you are going to take over private prisons, mail the letters 30 to 45 days in advance."
May Whittington, D-Schlater, said she was shocked to hear that Delta Correctional Facility (DCF), which lies in her district, was threatened.
Rep. Linda Coleman, D-Mound Bayou, vice-chair of the Penitentiary Committee said she would have probably gone along with looking at how money is being spent on private prisons, "but to do what they are doing on the first day of the fiscal year makes me concerned about the public safety."
Corrections Commissioner Robert Johnson claims that the public safety will not be compromised. MDOC spokesperson Jennifer Griffin said MDOC staff had been planning how to take over the private prisons, but would not do so until Musgrove finished his negotiations. Moore maintained that MDOC had no plan and that "they are trying to figure out what to do."
Musgrove began renegotiation of the private prison contracts, seeking a lower per diem rate. Louise Green, a spokesperson for CCA, the company that runs DCF in Greenwood and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, noted that her company viewed itself as MDOC's partner and was looking forward to continued negotiations with the state.
Musgrove extended the private prison contract for 12 days to allow for negotiations and a smooth transition to MDOC control, if necessary. He then called a special session of the legislature to deal with the prison funding issue. Prior to the special session, Musgrove successfully renegotiated four of the private prison contracts and moved to close the 1,016-bed DCF by September 20, 2002.
In July, 2002, the legislature met to consider a bill which would reduce the private prison funding from $54.7 million to $48.7 million. The bill, which passed 34-14 in the Senate, was defeated 64-51 in the House by the combined lobbying efforts of private prison operators and their friends in the House, according to Musgrove. This amounted to a de facto refusal to validate Musgrove's renegotiated private prison contracts. House speaker Tim Ford, D-Baldwyn, openly worried that the vote could result in legal action against the state. Moore agreed.
Chair of the House Penitentiary Committee Bennett Malone, D-Carthage, said the House was sending a strong message of disapproval to Musgrove. "We think it sets a dangerous precedent in dealing with corporations when we make agreements and then the governor cancels them without legislative input," said Malone.
Legislative Performance Expenditure Evaluation Review Committee Chair Max Arender gave Musgrove mixed reviews. "The governor is to be commended for negotiating lower per-deims with the private prisons," said Arender. But, he noted that $5 million of the saved money is from the one-time purchase of a surety bond which, while it saved the state from making a bond payment on the prison, has to be repaid in the future.
Saving $1 million while eliminating a $5 million payroll from Lefore County is not good business according to Rep. Willie Perkins, D-Greenwood. "That money turns over seven times and has a $438 million impact in the county that has lost 2,000 jobs in 24 months," said Perkins.
Prisoners' rights attorney Ron Welch filed motions in U. S. District Court in Greenville seeking to reopen the 1971 Gates v. Collier class-action prison conditions lawsuit, block the closing of DCF and have Musgrove's veto declared void. According to Welch, 10 of the state's prisons are overcrowded by 285 prisoners and needed prison repairs are not being made.
Moore and the Lefore County Prison Authority have also filed suit seeking to have Musgrove's veto declared invalid and to prevent the closing of DCF. Lefore County is under a court order to remove prisoners from its jail and wanted to transfer them to DCF, an arrangement which had been negotiated prior to Musgrove's cancellation of the private prison contracts.
Musgrove called a second special session to deal with the private prison funding issue for September 5, 2002. At the same time, the accounting firm of Smith, Turner & Reeves of Jackson verified a MDOC report showing that MDOC could operate the prisons in Lefore and Marshall Counties more cost effectively than the private companies. Since the contracts with the private prison companies call for them to operate the prisons at a cost 10% lower than the state's operating costs, questions were again raised about the propriety of contracting with private companies to run prisons.
"Certainly someone ought to be asking questions somewhere about these numbers," said Moore. However, Moore claimed that the numbers did not reflect the actual cost of the prisons system's medical contract with the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. Moore said the actual cost of $5.60 per prisoner per day was shown as a projected cost of $3.18.
The report apparently won over some of Musgrove's previous critics. Malone, who strongly opposed Musgrove in the past, said he would now support the reduced private prison budget and had sent a letter to other House members urging them to do the same.
Musgrove's making the expansion of the special session to include the issue of medical malpractice premiums for doctors who can't afford insurance dependent on the passage of his reduced private prison budget drew criticism. Others noted that the governor had very limited powers and was merely making use of one of them. Musgrove said that he only wanted to address one issue at a time to keep them focused and prevent muddling of the issues.
Sources: Clarion-Ledger; Memphis Commercial Appeal, Associated Press, www.clarionledger.com, www.gomemphis.com.
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