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Ineffective Mississippi Prison Industries on the Chopping Block After Scathing Report

by Ashleigh Dye

On April 18, 2022, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) signed House Bill 863, legislation that will repeal the 32-year-old law creating the Mississippi Prison Industries Corporation (MPIC), a non-profit entity tasked with providing job training that ultimately reduces recidivism for prisoners. Barring further action by state legislators, that law will come off the books on July 1, 2024.

The move follows the recommendation made by a state watchdog group in a highly critical report on MPIC issued in late 2021, which found that the agency and the state Department of Corrections (DOC) “did not follow the [statutory] plan or coordinate in any manner.”

“Instead, MPIC has been subjected to little oversight, neglected its statutory duties, and struggled with financial stability,” the report concluded, resulting in a “lack of operational and financial success” that “has raised serious concerns regarding the entity’s ability to remain viable.”

Perhaps the most damning statistic uncovered by the group, the state legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER), was the tiny number of the state’s 17,000 prisoners enrolled in MPIC: 213.

That’s a 1% participation rate.

Though MPIC offers 11 training programs, prisoners participated in just three basic courses, all job readiness programs relating to attitude, interviewing and job training services. Courses which teach skills such as Logistics, Lift Truck Safety, and Welding did not report numbers. PEER’s evaluation concluded that the job skills offered are those with little to no opportunities available in Mississippi.

So why aren’t more prisoners involved, and why aren’t more useful, relevant skills offered?

The short answer is: money. Though prisoners can earn a great deal more working for MPIC than performing other prison labor, the top pay rate is still far below the state’s minimum wage. That means MPIC’s products have an inherent cost advantage over those produced by private firms, who inevitably complain that they don’t enjoy a captive labor pool specifically exempted from the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition against slavery, as PLN has previously reported. [See: PLN, Mar. 2014, p.52.]

PEER noted that MPIC has been unable to maintain data making it possible to calculate a recidivism rate, the core reason that MPIC exists. That left PEER to conclude that MPIC “does not place an importance on inmate programming and reducing recidivism as required by law.”

In addition to questions about reducing recidivism, the other major concern with MPIC is financial sustainability. Since fiscal year 2015, the agency has struggled with “losses in long-term product lines, unsuccessful expansion into new product lines and failure to control administrative overhead expenses such as salaries and benefits, contract services and operating expenses,” PEER noted.

In fact, but for a cash infusion from the Paycheck Protection Program passed by Congress during the COVID-19 pandemic, MPIC would have lost money in 2020.

Although created in 1990 to work with DOC to provide meaningful job training to prisoners with the goal of reducing recidivism, MPIC has not accomplished this goal, PEER concluded. It therefore recommended that that the legislature abolish MPIC and follow the lead of 47 other states which task their DOC to provide job training programs. See: A Review of the Sustainability of the Mississippi Prison Industries Corp., Issue Brief #663 (Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, Nov. 17, 2021).

In January 2022, MPIC announced it is rebranding as MAGCOR Industries. In a press release, CEO Bradley Lum said the next two years before his company is abolished will be a “reimagining process” of the role the nonprofit plays in the state’s workforce ecosystem.

A separate law signed by Gov. Reeves on April 21, 2022, Senate Bill 2437, created a pilot program in MPIC for 25 prisoners, with DOC having ultimate oversight authority. Legislators ended up favoring this piecemeal approach over immediately abolishing MPIC and moving its functions to DOC. Bills that would have done that died in committee in February 2022.  

Additional source: Northside Sun, Tupleo Daily Journal

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