Miss. officials, DOC at loggerheads over continuing inmate labor program

Government officials say DOC is reneging on commitment to pay for prisons counties built to house state inmates

By Bobby Harrison
Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal

JACKSON — Local government officials say the Mississippi Department of Corrections is reneging on a commitment it made to provide a stream of revenue to pay for prisons counties built to house state imates in a Joint State County Work Program.

DOC Commissioner Marshall Fisher said with the state inmate population declining, thanks in part to legislative changes made in the 2014 session, he no longer needs the extra prison beds in the 30 Joint State County Work Programs located throughout the state.

The result, he said, is that he will begin in August phasing out the programs.

In a statement Wednesday, Fisher said, “MDOC is trying to find a way to work with these sheriffs and counties that will be affected by the closure of the JSCWP. At this time, MDOC continues to move forward with its original closure plan.

“We have to get out of the mind-set that we must continue doing business the old way.”

On Wednesday, supervisors, city officials and sheriffs from throughout the state held a news conference in Jackson at the Mississippi Association of Supervisors headquarters to urge Fisher and his boss, Gov. Phil Bryant, to reverse that decision. Many legislators, both Republican and Democrat, attended the news conference, as well as at least two statewide Democratic candidates, Vickie Slater of Madison, who is running for governor; and Tim Johnson of Madison, who is running for lieutenant governor.

Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, a Republican, also urged that the program remain open. He said the Transportation Department using inmates from the program to pick up litter.

Rep. Lester “Bubba” Carpenter, R-Burnsville, said closing the joint programs will put counties he represents – Alcorn and Tishomingo – in financial straits and might force a local tax increase.

Both Lowell Hinton, president of the Alcorn County Board of Supervisors, and Tishomingo Supervisor Brandon Grissom said their counties built prisons to house the inmates in the program after receiving a commitment from Department of Corrections officials that the counties would receive $20 per day for each state inmate housed in the prisons.

“They are leaving the local people left holding the bag to pay for construction,” said Carpenter, adding that it will take $500,000 per year to pay the debt on the Tishomingo County joint state/county work program prison.

Prentiss County Supervisor Mike Huddleston said no debt is owed on the prison in his county. But still, losing the prison labor would hurt.

Officials at the news conference said the counties and the municipalities will be having to hire people to perform the work the inmates normally do. The work ranges from janitorial services, to landscaping and mowing work, to picking up litter, to cooking for other prisoners being housed in the counties.

According to information provided at the news conference, the loss of the program will cost the counties $21.3 million annually and the municipalities $1.5 million.

In Northeast Mississippi, the loss would be:

• $1.7 million for Monroe County

• $1.2 million for Alcorn County

• $1 million for Pontotoc County

• $984,476 for Chickasaw County

• $600,958 for Tishomingo County

• $428,419 for Prentiss County

• $370,000 for Union County

• $256,436 for Clay County

• $150,000 for the city of Belmont

• $70,000 for the city of Pontotoc

• $30,000 for the Woodland municipality

• $5,000 for the Smithville municipality

One possible compromise that MDOC has proposed is allowing the program to continue in the counties, but without the state providing $20 per day reimbursement for each inmate housed by the county. Fisher said the state is not required to provide the $20 per day reimbursement if beds in state facilities are available and thus MDOC will stop providing the reimbursement.

County officials said Wednesday the $20 per day is much cheaper than what it costs to house an inmate in a state facility.

“Laying off my people or closing one of the state’s prison as was suggested…is not a viable option,” Fisher said. “With the continued reduction of inmates in state prisons, we anticipate more significant changes in the future.”

Fisher said there are other programs available where state inmates can be used to provide work for the counties.

The joint programs is designed for nonviolent offenders who are completing their sentence.

Closing the program would save about $3.2 million in MDOC’s $340 million budget.

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