Guard shortage, wave of violence force state prison system to send hundreds of inmates to private prison

Published 5:19 pm Thursday, January 9, 2020

Mississippi’s prison system signed a 90-day contract to shift 375 inmates from the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman to a nearby private lockup, saying it doesn’t have the guards to safely keep the inmates in state custody in the wake of recent violence.

The state and CoreCivic announced the contract Thursday, a day after it was signed. The inmates were being shifted after violence led to three deaths at Parchman and an unknown number of injuries. Some inmates were earlier moved into a closed-down cell block to separate clashing gang members.

The department said the 90-day contract to house inmates at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler would cost more than $2 million.

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Department spokeswoman Grace Simmons declined to provide a copy of the contract and directed The Associated Press to file a formal public records request. She didn’t answer questions about whether the state invoked emergency procedures to sign the contract without seeking bids.

The state and CoreCivic, based in Nashville, Tennessee, say the contract could be extended for 180 more days, and allows for the state to send more prisoners.

“We are pleased to be able to assist the state of Mississippi due to significant challenges in their correctional system,” CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger said.

CoreCivic said it would house close-custody prisoners, those requiring high security.

The state wouldn’t say when inmates were being moved. Paloma Wu, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center who tried to visit clients at Parchman on Wednesday, said large numbers of state troopers were posted up and down U.S. 49W between Parchman and Tutwiler, apparently to provide extra security while inmates were being shifted. The department said relatives of transferred inmates would be notified.

“While the department has challenges, keeping staff and the inmates safe is always our priority,” outgoing Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall said in statement.

State law says Mississippi can house up to 1,000 prisoners at the Tallahatchie County prison, but says it must pay at least 10% less than the cost of housing an inmate in a state-run prison.

An April report set the state’s cost at $53.72 a day, meaning the target cost for private prisons is $43.34 per inmate. The cost for the Tallahatchie inmates would be more than $60 a day, and it’s unclear how the state is legally justifying that.

Mississippi is on track this year to pay $66.7 million to privately run Management & Training Corp. to run three large prisons.

Mississippi Today reported that the department has submitted notification that it’s overspent its current budget by $9 million, including $2.1 million for CoreCivic, and needs a midyear cash infusion from lawmakers.

CoreCivic formerly operated the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility in Woodville when the company was called Corrections Corp. of America. Besides the Tallahatchie County facility, it also operates the Adams County Correctional Facility near Natchez, housing immigration detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The company has long been a target of critics who say for-profit prisons have financial incentives to treat inmates poorly.

The state chose the Tutwiler prison because it was the only location that could immediately receive inmates, Hall said.

She also noted that Tutwiler is nearby — it’s only 13 miles (21 kilometers) from the Tallahatchie prison to Parchman’s front gate. She said the department has a “lack of manpower to restore and maintain order.” Lacking employees, she said the department couldn’t open a shuttered prison in Walnut Grove as an alternative.

Hall has repeatedly told Mississippi lawmakers that prisons are understaffed. Corrections officials are seeking an additional $67 million in the budget year beginning July 1 to hire 800 more guards and raise salaries at three state-run prisons including Parchman.

The department said Thursday that it’s still cleaning up Parchman’s unit 29, a cell block that was a focus of the violence. Corrections officials seek $22 million to reroof and rebuild the unit, saying Thursday that it needs “major repair and renovation.”

The department is also defending its response to violence at Parchman, saying Unit 32, where inmates were taken for temporary housing “is structurally sound and not condemned.” The department closed the unit in 2011 in a lawsuit settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union, which had called living conditions there “as bad as anywhere in the country.”