“Deal with the Devil” Turning on Mississippi Counties
by David Reutter
As mass incarceration in the United States grew between 1990 and 2005, many lawmakers decided to ride the wave of “tough on crime” rhetoric by building new correctional facilities to house the increasing number of people being arrested, convicted and incarcerated. During that period, 544 detention centers were built in the U.S. – one every ten days for 15 years.
But a current trend to reduce incarceration levels rather than impose long sentences is causing the wave to recede, leaving fewer people to fill prison and jail beds which nonetheless continue to consume tax dollars for their debt service and maintenance costs.
Mississippi is a case in point. With its prison system bursting at the seams in the late 1990s, state officials often refused to accept prisoners from county jails, even when they were sentenced to prison terms. One sheriff went so far as to drive prisoners to a state facility and leave them handcuffed to the fence.
To address the problem, lawmakers offered local municipalities a deal: Build county-operated regional correctional facilities, and the state would promise to keep them at 80% capacity, paying $29.74 per prisoner per day. Local officials took out bonds and built 15 of the facilities with dreams of establishing permanent jobs in their communities.
Prisoners held at the regional facilities provided labor for county work programs such as picking up trash. As they were paid low or no wages and were forced to work, prisoner labor quickly became essential to local budgets.
“You’re either gonna [use cheap prisoner labor or] go up on everybody’s garbage bill,” said George County Supervisor Henry Cochran, noting that taxpayers are “getting a little good out of that inmate for their tax dollars. You either gotta hire a bunch of employees or keep that inmate. It’s like making a deal with the devil.”
But mass incarceration is increasingly being seen as a costly failure that exacts a tough toll both on prisoners and local communities. Criminal justice reform is the current trend, even if it’s off to a slow and modest start. Mississippi has enacted certain reforms that decreased the number of people sent to prison; between 2014 and 2015, the state’s prison population fell by almost 3,000 prisoners, to 18,845. As a result, prison officials started pulling prisoners from the regional correctional facilities to fill vacant beds in state prisons – including removing 602 prisoners from the facilities beginning in February 2016.
George and Stone counties cried foul after 80 prisoners were removed from each of their regional facilities – about a third of the population. That equated to about $72,000 per month in lost revenue, which threatened the counties’ ability to make payments on the bonds issued to finance construction of the facilities.
County officials also pointed to competition from private prisons as a problem, especially when they are a more costly option for the state than the regional correctional facilities.
“According to their reports, they have some private prisons that they are actually paying up to $80 a day,” said Scott Strickland, president of the Stone County Board of Supervisors.
Dale Bond, who serves with Strickland on the Board of Supervisors, wondered why Mississippi would double its costs by contracting with a private company instead of leaving state prisoners in the county-run regional facilities.
“Some of these private prisons have got 1,000 inmates and they’re getting that large per diem,” he noted.
But of the approximately 4,100 prisoners held at four privately-operated prisons in Mississippi, none have been moved from regional facilities, according to Issa Arnita, spokesman for Management and Training Corp. (MTC), a for-profit company that contracts with Mississippi officials to house state prisoners.
Bond, however, wasn’t buying it.
“[W]e’ll be well over a quarter-million in the red on that facility,” he said, referring to the Stone County Correctional Facility. “If they do not send us our inmates back, we can’t make it.”
Housing prisoners in state prisons costs about $43 per prisoner per day – also more than the state pays the counties.
“I think it’s political favors going around,” Strickland said.
However, he also acknowledged that the primary factor in reducing the number of prisoners overall has been criminal justice reform, especially reduced sentences for some drug-related offenses and early release incentives.
Officials in George and Stone counties said they would each have to lay off around 40 employees if their regional facilities close. But then-Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher questioned the backwards thinking of counties that rely on filling detention facility beds to ensure the success of their local economies.
“I don’t think it necessarily started out this way, but the inmate population has become the backbone of some of these counties that are involved,” he said.
Fisher offered to let counties keep their state prisoners – if they forfeit their per diem reimbursements from the state. But even that seems like a good deal to municipalities that have grown dependent on the cheap labor provided by work crews from the regional facilities.
“It was a tough decision,” said Scott County Sheriff Mike Lee, “but we decided we couldn’t afford to do without the inmate labor.”
In a way Lee might consider himself lucky; Fisher noted that some counties had lost their access to prisoner workers because budget cuts left the state unable to hire enough qualified guards to oversee the community work crews.
Antonio Moore, who produced the documentary “Crack in the System,” said what this really demonstrates is that mass incarceration was more an economic strategy than one aimed at crime prevention or public safety.
“Under the administrations of Reagan and Clinton, incarceration, a social tool used for punishment, also became a major job creator,” he stated.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Mississippi still incarcerates its residents at a rate higher than Russia and China combined – 843 per 100,000 people, based on 2016 data. Which means the state has a long way to go before it dismantles the mass incarceration infrastructure, including regional correctional facilities, that it has relied upon for economic development.
Sources: Clarion-Ledger, www.huffingtonpost.com, www.workers.org, www.prisonpolicy.org