By JACK ELLIOTT JR.
JACKSON — Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps will save the state about $10.2 million a year with the closing of the privately run prison in the Leflore County.
“I think I made the right decision,” Epps said this past week after the closing was announced.
The Delta Correctional Facility closed Oct. 9, 2002. Then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove said the state would shut down the prison, citing a lack of funding due to his veto of the Mississippi Department of Corrections budget for private prisons. A state judge later ruled the veto unconstitutional.
At that time, the private prison housed more than 800 inmates and employed 200 workers.
Musgrove, a Democrat, said Delta Correctional was closed because the state had too many prison beds and its resources needed to go to education and jobs.
“Philosophically, I don’t believe in creating jobs based on having people commit more crimes,” Musgrove said. “That is not the direction we should take in our state.”
In March 2003, Musgrove signed a bill transferring part of the Delta Correctional facility to Leflore County, which needed a new local jail.
Republican Haley Barbour made it a political issue during the 2003 gubernatorial election, vowing to reopen the prison if he beat Musgrove. Barbour defeated Musgrove and the prison reopened in April 2004, less than three months after Barbour took office.
“I am eager to bring valued jobs and economic growth back to the Delta,” Barbour said.
Epps said the prison system can easily absorb the 900 inmates from the prison.
The situation marks a turnaround for Mississippi’s corrections system, which found itself woefully crowded in the decades of the 1990s and 2000s.
Epps worked with Barbour to enact laws removing the cap on meritorious earned time for inmates. The amount of time an inmate could shave off a sentence through prison jobs or education courses was capped at 180 days. Without the cap, an inmate can continue to earn 10 days a month.
Another law removed the one-year limitation on placing certain drug offenders on house arrest.
In 2008, Barbour signed a bill that made thousands of inmates eligible to be considered for parole. The parole eligibility law allows nonviolent offenders convicted after June 30, 1995, to be eligible for parole after serving a portion of their time. The bill also covers nonviolent offenders convicted of possessing small amounts of drugs.
While some skeptics believed the laws would have little impact, there are visible results. Epps was able to close 1,172-bed facility in Leflore County with plans to have the inmates cleared out by early January.
Certainly, Epps has taken other steps such as the release of 89 terminally ill prisoners in October to chip away at the system’s inmate numbers.
Presently, the state has 21,500 inmates, but some facilities are operating well below capacity. For instance, the 15 regional jails are holding about 1,000 fewer inmates than their combined authorized capacity.
As of this past Friday, Epps said he had more than 4,000 open beds in state facilities, community work centers and regional and private prisons.
With the closing of the Delta prison, Epps said the MDOC “has saved the state a lot of money.”
“They (inmates) are going to my beds so all I will be paying is for food, clothing and medical expenses,” he said.
Epps said the decision to close down the Leflore County operation was a mutual decision with Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America. Mississippi law requires inmate costs to be 10 percent less at a privately run prison than at a state-run prison.
Epps said the state’s cost per day for taking care of inmates was $34.61 for medium-custody beds. By state law, Epps said CCA had to accept a rate of 10 percent less, or about $31.15 per inmate, per day.
“They said they couldn’t make it on that,” Epps said.