JACKSON • For the second time in three years, a legislative watchdog group has questioned the financial future and the overall effectiveness of a Mississippi nonprofit company that provides incarcerated people with job training skills.
The Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER, recently released findings showing that the Mississippi Prison Industries Corporation, or MPIC, has not maintained a proper database to clearly show how many inmates are actually receiving the job-training services.
“MPIC has been subjected to little oversight, neglected its statutory duties, and struggled with financial stability,” the report reads. “MPIC’s lack of operational and financial success has raised serious concerns regarding the entity’s ability to remain viable.”
The Legislature created the MPIC in 1990 as a way to provide incarcerated people with useful job skills and reduce the state prisons’ recidivism rate, or the number of people who return to prison after getting convicted of another crime.
But the report claims that the organization does not actually have enough data on hand to give a proper recidivism rate, has not not targeted inmates most likely to need recidivism prevention and that the training on offer has a slim chance of turning into a real job.
“MPIC reported a recidivism rate to PEER,” the report reads. “However, PEER determined that MPIC did not have the three-year data needed to calculate a recidivism rate properly. It is clear that MPIC does not place an importance on inmate programming and reducing recidivism as required by state law.”
Bradley Lum, the CEO of MPIC, told the Daily Journal that he respects the PEER committee, but believes the work that his organization does speaks for itself.
“We want to help every person that has touched our correctional facility to be the best person that they can be,” Lum said.
Lum, who has been the organization's CEO since 2019, said during the last 12 to 18 months, the company has connected over 200 inmates with jobs and only one inmate that the company has worked with has returned to the state prison system.
Report shows MPIC’s finances have declined in recent years
The state’s goal in creating the prison industry corporation in the 90s was to give incarcerated people skills and training they could use to gain a meaningful job once they got out of prison and to reduce the costs of running state government.
The MPIC employees in theory would train the inmates with a skill such as welding. Then, they would produce goods that could be sold. The profits would then transfer back into MPIC.
Because of this arrangement, MPIC receives no appropriations from the Legislature and must operate out of the revenue it produces. But the organization has continued to bleed money for the past several years, according to the report.
PEER produced a report in 2018 that raised similar financial concerns. At the time, the group recommended three options: the corporation seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, ask the Legislature to dissolve the organization or cut its unprofitable product lines.
The organization decided to go with the third option.
The most recent report said that after reviewing MPIC’s unaudited financial reports, the organization experienced six consecutive months of net losses during Fiscal Year 2021.
The corporation reported a net income of $162,364 for the first month of Fiscal Year 2022, but the report attributes the positive income to $300,008 that it received from the Paycheck Protection Program.
Had the organization not received the federal relief money, it would have had a negative net loss of $136,444 for that month.
Lum said that it was misleading for PEER to produce only a six-month snapshot of the organization.
“There's no company in the country that would look at four or six months of financial data,” Lum said. “Frankly, we’re going to end the fiscal year in a positive financial shape.”
The report highlights that Mississippi is one of only two states in the nation that operates its prison industry program through a nonprofit corporation. The overwhelming majority of states use their state-funded corrections department to carry out inmate training programs.
In the recent report, PEER advised the Legislature to consider abolishing the nonprofit and merging its duties with the corrections department. Lum would not directly address PEER’s recommendation to dissolve the organization, but said that he and his staff are committed to placing formerly incarcerated people on a path to job security.
Communications officials at MDOC did not respond to questions asking if it could absorb the duties of the prison industry corporation should it be abolished.
Legislative leaders remain mum about report
Two of the Legislature’s top criminal justice policy makers told the Daily Journal that they have not read the eight-page report yet, but plan to study its findings before the legislative session begins next month.
Rep. Nick Bain, chairman of the House Judiciary B Committee, and Sen. Juan Barnett, chairman of the Senate Corrections Committee, both said they want to examine the report and the underlying issues in greater detail before committing to any substantive move next year.
“Before we make a hasty move, there needs to be some more studying,” said Barnett, a Democrat from Heidelberg.
But a Northeast Mississippi lawmaker has raised questions about the nonprofit for several years.
State Rep. Jerry Turner, a Republican from Baldwyn who sits on the PEER Committee, told the Daily Journal he believes MPIC is largely ineffective, a stance he's held for at least eight years.
Sen. Chad McMahan, also a PEER committee member, said he believes that a lawmaker is likely going to introduce legislation next year that would dissolve the organization and merge it with the state Corrections Department.
McMahan, a Republican from Guntown, would not say who the lawmaker is or divulge the specifics of the bill.
If lawmakers do indeed wish to abolish the corporation, it would likely come during one of the most crammed legislative sessions in recent history. State leaders are expected to examine legislation on medical marijuana, redraw legislative districts and decide how federal money should be spent – three major legislative items to tackle in one session.
The report also comes at a time when lawmakers who deal with criminal justice issues want to focus on other issues in the next legislative session.
Bain and Barnett told the Daily Journal in July that they wanted to focus on revamping reentry programs in the state prisons. Rep. Kevin Horan, the chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said that he wanted to introduce legislation that would establish a new reentry court for incarcerated people.
If legislation is introduced to dissolve MPIC, it would need to win approval from the leaders of the correction committees during the 2022 session that begins on Jan. 4.