On December 12, 2019, the Board of Supervisors of Mississippi’s Issaquena County granted an eleventh-hour reprieve to the Issaquena County Regional Jail just five days before it was set to close and over 300 prisoners were to be moved. The Mayersville jail is the county’s largest employer, with a staff of 53, according to Sheriff Richard Jones.
In a meeting December 3, 2019, the Board of Supervisors had decided to cease jail operations effective December 17, 2019, saying the facility was costing the county more money than the government was taking in to house prisoners and pay staff. The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) has a contract to house some prisoners at the jail. As a regional correctional facility, it also accepts overflow prisoners from the jails in neighboring counties. Made with just two weeks notice, though, the announcement that the jail would close left some local officials stunned.
“We’re the county seat, so of course we’re going to feel the impact of it,” said Mayersville Mayor Linda Short, who added that the move would “truly hurt our small community and communities in the surrounding areas, not just Issaquena County but the surrounding Delta.”
She also suggested that if someone came in to audit the books to see where the funding is going, they could rectify the problem. Sheriff Richard Jones was against the shutdown, too, not least because he had no idea what to do with the jail’s prisoners.
“I’m kind of lost,” Jones said after the announcement. “I don’t know the plan. The supervisors made that decision this morning. They didn’t want to hear what I had to say.”
The Issaquena jail is one of 15 regional jails in Mississippi. Most were built with the expectation that MDOC would use about 80 percent of their capacity. But for each of the 4,186 prisoners MDOC currently houses in regional prisons, it pays nearly $20 a day under what it costs, according to a 2016 report from PEER Committee, a state government watchdog.
Moreover, MDOC now houses another 3,167 prisoners in private facilities run by Utah-based Management and Training Corp. In 2018, when the state legislature failed to fund a $3.6 million shortfall in the portion of MDOC’s budget dedicated to covering per diem payments to house state prisoners in regional jails, sheriffs and other officials from several counties showed up on the steps of the capitol in Jackson to protest.
“It appears that the only way the (regional jails) can survive long term is that the Legislature stop funding the private company ... and give some priority to their own counties,” the group’s statement read.
Nonetheless, when the decision to close the Issaquena jail was announced, then-MDOC commissioner Pelicia E. Hall fired off a letter to Sheriff Jones and Board of Supervisors, calling them in breach of their contract with MDOC for lack of sufficient notice about the upcoming move.
The Board of Supervisors responded with a letter demanding a lump sum payment of $312,270 to make up the difference between the $29.74 per prisoner per diem the state set over a decade ago and the $25.61 that MDOC is currently paying. A second letter demanded an increase in jail capacity from 334 prisoners to 350. Currently 321 prisoners are housed at the jail, about half coming from the state system.
Hall balked at both demands, calling them outside MDOC’s agreement with the county, and she said that closing the jail was “a threat to public safety.” She also threatened to exercise “any available remedies under law to address the breach.”
Issaquena is not the only county with complaints that MDOC has to contend with. The same problems affect other regional jails, whose costs have also risen faster than the per diem they receive. Sheriff Willie March of Holmes County noted that MDOC also has cut back its $29.74 per diem in his county and placed a 3% cap on any additional amounts requested by county officials to make ends meet at the jail.
“You are going to get $23.23,” March said of the new MDOC per diem, adding: “I cannot sign that contract because the Board of Supervisors will not continue to lose money on this facility.”
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