Foretold "uprising" hits cash-starved Mississippi prisons

Employees leave the front gate of the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman. Recent prison violence comes even as a federal judge in December rejected claims that conditions in one Mississippi prison are unconstitutionally harsh.

JACKSON • Two House lawmakers want more details about the legality of an agreement to temporarily house Parchman inmates at a privately owned and operated prison in the Delta.{/div}

Late Wednesday afternoon, several people briefed on the contract between the Department of Corrections and Nashville-based CoreCivic, which owns and operates the prison, shared its details with Mississippi Today.

Those people, who asked not to be named because they are not authorized to discuss it with the news media, said the state would pay CoreCivic “around $60 per day per inmate,” an amount that exceeds the statutory cap placed on a private prison company.

State law allows for no more than 1,000 state inmates to be housed at the Tallahatchie Correctional Facility but mandates that “the inmate cost per day is at least 10 percent less than the inmate cost per day for housing a state inmate at a state correctional facility,” the law reads.

A legislative oversight committee last year stated the model cost per inmate per day at $53.72. Under this requirement, the state should not pay more to the private correctional facility’s operators more than $48.35 per inmate per day for inmate housing.

(Editor’s note: Charles Overby, a Mississippi Today board member and donor, serves on the CoreCivic board of directors.)

As news of the inmate transfer to the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility reached the Capitol on Wednesday morning, legislative leaders began questioning whether the amount was within legal bounds.

Rep. Bill Kinkade, R-Byhalia, who served as chairman of the House Corrections Committee the past four years, told Mississippi Today on Wednesday he will ask the House Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee to look into the contract.

“I understand it is an emergency situation, and I am not saying anything is wrong, but I am just curious about the details of the contract,” Kinkade said. “I just think we need to know the details of the contract.”

Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, who served as chairman of the House Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency committee for the past four years, said he had not seen the contract yet, but wanted to know the details, “just as soon as I can get my hands on it.”

Following a spate of violence resulting in the deaths of at least five state inmates since the new year began, the corrections department began transferring inmates from the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman to the Tallahatchie Correctional Facility, a private prison.

Efforts by Mississippi Today to obtain a copy of the full contract were unsuccessful. Officials at the Department of Corrections and in Gov. Phil Bryant’s office did not respond to numerous requests for comment on Wednesday, nor was the contract posted to the state’s transparency website.

If the contract passes legal scrutiny, the Department of Corrections would likely need a deficit appropriation – or a special mid-year cash infusion to cover budget shortfalls for state agencies – to cover the cost of the contract. During the first House appropriations meeting of the 2020 legislative session, chairman Rep. John Read, R-Gautier, was asked if the Department of Corrections would need additional funding this fiscal year to cover their operations.

“We will have a deficit, but to what degree we do not know at this time,” Read said. “We have a number and we do have the revenue for that number, but considering everything that’s passed by recently, that number could increase and we would just have to wait and see what that number is.”

Before the latest contract with CoreCivic, the Department of Corrections paid millions annually to other private prison companies. In fiscal year 2019, the department spent $64.5 million on private prisons.

Utah-based Management and Training Corp., or MTC, operates East Mississippi Correctional Facility, Marshall County Correctional Facility and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility. A federal judge recently dismissed a lawsuit against the state over conditions at the East Mississippi facility.

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