It’s not merely the Mississippi prison vendor contracts that should draw scrutiny in the wake of the Chris Epps corruption probe. The state’s private prison contracts should also be examined.
Why? Because the Epps indictment draws into question not just the vendor contracts Epps signed and brokered, but the overall direction of the state’s correctional system under his watch. The rise of private prisons in Mississippi has been meteoric and hard to explain.
In the wake of the federal indictment of Epps on bribery and kickback charges, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant ordered that all contracts associated with companies listed in the indictment be re-bid. The federal indictment alleges that Epps engaged in a criminal conspiracy with alleged co-conspirator Cecil McCrory, a former lawmaker and president of the Rankin County school board, by taking nearly $2 million in bribes and kickbacks.
Private prisons in Mississippi – unlike prison-related corruption – are a relatively recent development. In 1995, Mississippi lawmakers followed national trends in attempting to “get tough on crime.” But in doing so, the lawmakers also dramatically increased the state’s prison population and therefore the operating costs of the state prison system.
The Legislature adopted the so-called “85 percent rule” which mandated that all state convicts must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before being eligible for parole. Mississippi’s law was in sharp contrast to other states, where the 85 percent rule applied only to violent offenders.
The law had tremendous impact. On June 30, 1993, the Mississippi Department of Corrections had 9,629 prisoners with a capacity of 9,164. By the end of 1998, the figures jumped to 16,695 and 16,007, respectively.
By 1999’s election year, calls were widespread to relax the 85 percent rule because of the staggering increase in prison costs and the burgeoning prison population. The law was eventually amended to make certain first-time, nonviolent offenders eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentences.
By 2002, there were 2,600 empty state-owned prison beds while two private prisons were being guaranteed an inmate population sufficient to keep them profitable. In 2001, the Legislature voted near the end of the regular session to divert $6 million to pay for empty private prison bed space for so-called “ghost inmates.”
Three companies in the private prison business – CCA, Wackenhut (later the GEO Group) and Cornell (later purchased by GEO Group) – spread campaign contributions around the Capitol and paid some of the state’s top lobbyists to represent their interests. Republicans and Democrats alike got $6,400 in 1999, $29,100 in 2003, $27,950 in 2007 and $9,400 in 2011. There was more money in the “off” years.
The rise and fall of the 85 percent rule is a follow-the-numbers game – even after steps were taken in 2008 to lessen the impact of the sentencing guidelines. In May 2002, there were 21,751 state inmates with 2,829 in private prisons and 17,490 convicts on probation or parole. By May 2012, there were 25,572 state inmates with 3,110 in private prisons and 35,242 convicts on probation or parole.
By 2013, Mississippi had four private prisons and was doing business with Management and Training Corporation (MTC). The company was running four private prisons in Mississippi in 2013. Epps allegedly convinced MTC to hire Cecil McCrory as a “consultant”.
It’s time that the overall private prison onion in Mississippi get peeled back, one layer at a time.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org