‘A pressure cooker type situation’: Can Mississippi towns that depend on prison jobs survive without them?

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Associated Press/The Natchez Democrat, Lauren Wood

In this Sunday, May 20, 2012, photo officers stand on the roof of and outside the gates at the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Miss., during an inmate disturbance at the prison.

The Adams County Correctional Facility, run by Nashville-based CoreCivic, had been at risk of shutting down this summer after the federal Bureau of Prisons announced the agency would not renew the facility’s decade-long contract. 

As a result of losing this federal contract, Adams County could have lost nearly 400 jobs at the 2,232-bed facility that primarily houses people charged with the misdemeanor crime of re-entering the U.S. illegally after being deported.

“It’s a huge economic impact to us,” Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez Inc. told Mississippi Today, adding: “The Natchez facility is a highly marketable asset… [It’s a] newly built facility. It’s still in really good shape and it’s functional and it’s modern as far as prisons go.” 

The unemployment rate as of May 2019 in Adams County mirrors the state’s at 6 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The county has a population of 31,000 as of 2017, according to the Census Bureau.

But the prison and the town got a reprieve when the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, stepped in as CoreCivic’s new tenant.

“At this time, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is facing an emergent need for detention capacity,” Amanda Gilchrist, CoreCivic’s director of public affairs, told the Natchez Democrat. “Working together with its federal partner and CoreCivic, BOP has offered the use of its available space at the Adams County Correctional Center as a flexible solution to help meet ICE’s needs.”

Tallahatchie County, where unemployment is 4.9 percent as of May, faced similar uncertainty when a CoreCivic-run prison lost its contract with the state of California. In 2018, the company announced that the U.S Marshals Service would fill the void California left; other CoreCivic customers using the Tallahatchie prison are South Carolina and Wyoming as well as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and ICE.

No specific reason was given for the Bureau of Prison’s decision to pull out of Natchez, although a 2016 monitoring review the agency conducted revealed that privately operated facilities had more safety and security problems than federally run prisons. In 2012, a riot at the Adams County prison resulted in the death of a correctional officer and years of prosecutions of prisoners who were involved in the riot. 

Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, which was operated by two private companies — Florida-based GEO Group and Utah-based Management and Training Corp. — was the subject of a lawsuit and 2012 federal consent decree over conditions and abuse of prisoners, including children. In 2016, Walnut Grove closed its doors a little more than one year after U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ruled that conditions had not improved and extended the consent decree. 

In 2012, Delta Correctional Facility in LeFlore County was also shuttered because the state’s inmate population was falling and could not afford to keep open the Greenwood prison, which The GEO Group also operated.

Together, these prisons and their closures present a quandary for local communities. In many cases, prisons provide some of the few job opportunities in the area. But the comparatively low wages and dangerous working conditions that result in high turnover, violence and corruption, which make running prisons more expensive to operate, prompt some officials to question whether prisons —  and the jobs that come with them — are good for their communities over the long run. 

In the short run, however, prisons have provided needed jobs in a state with above-average unemployment. Mississippi, which has the nation’s third highest incarceration rate behind Louisiana and Oklahoma, also has more than 1.5 times the concentration of the national average of correctional officer positions, information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows. Northwest Mississippi, which includes the Delta — home to four prisons in the past decade — has 4.6 times the concentration of correctional industry jobs. 

Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

State Rep. Abe Hudson talks about how to move forward as a community instead of focusing on the past.

State Rep. Abe Hudson, D-Shelby, who represents parts of the Delta and sits on the House Corrections Committee, would like to see reliance on the prison industry decrease. 

“I’d rather see them employed in another industry that is less stressful, pays more and offers a more fulfilling life,” Hudson said. “Unfortunately, there are negative aspects to working in the prison industry. I’d rather my constituents did not have to only rely on that industry for gainful employment.” 

In the 1980s and 1990s, the so-called war on drugs, among other criminal justice legislation at the state and federal levels, led to steep increases in prison populations across the country. A 2003 report by The Sentencing Project found between 1985 and 1995 an average of 35 jobs were created for every 100 inmates housed while state prison populations increased an annual average of 8.1 percent.

“Local officials began to consider prisons as an economic development tool,” the report’s authors wrote. 

“In rapidly growing communities, prisons aided the growth of public sector jobs,” David Gutierrez wrote in 2016 for Harvard Political Review.

“Towns that were struggling, meanwhile, were hurt by the construction of a new prison because the prison constrained private development. In general, researchers found that prisons did not improve the unemployment rate, median family income, or earning,” Gutierrez wrote. 

Mississippi House

Rep. Roun McNeal, R-Leakesville

For example, in Greene County, home to the state-run South Mississippi Correctional Institution, sits at 6.6 percent — higher than Mississippi’s unemployment rate of about 5 percent. State Rep. Roun McNeal, R-Leakesville, said despite the fact that there are billboards scattered around his home town advertising $12 an hour wages for entry level correctional officers, residents have grown wary of calling the number listed on the jobs billboard.

“The prison has been here long enough that everybody knows that if you’re an entry level corrections officer when your shift ends your supervisor may … say ‘Hey, somebody didn’t show up for work today so you get to work a double. And you don’t have a choice,” McNeal, who also sits on the House Corrections Committee, told Mississippi Today. “Sometimes, you may walk in there and you may not know if you’re going to be able to go home to your kid.” 

The Leakesville prison has been on lockdown for months due to a staffing shortage. In January, when the facility was first locked down, the prison was 31 inmates short of reaching its capacity and 48 percent of the jobs were empty, according to a MDOC press release. 

MDOC

Pelicia Hall, commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections

“We are operating in a pressure cooker type situation right now,” MDOC Commissioner Pelicia E. Hall said in a press release at the time.

MDOC correctional officers make a minimum of $25,650.84 annually according to the MDOC website. Although MDOC pay was recently increased for new correctional officers with college degrees or previous correctional experience, McNeal says that the small bump in pay only keeps their salaries in line with inflation. MDOC has a budget of $360 million. 

As managing attorney at the Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center, Jody Owens oversaw several class-action lawsuits against privately operated prisons, including Walnut Grove and East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Meridian. 

“Mississippi’s budget, of upwards of $400 million dedicated to incarceration individuals, is largely misplaced and misfocused because the money should be focused completely on keeping people out of prison versus asking the citizens to take care of prisons,”  Owens told Mississippi Today.

Owens, who is now running to be the Hinds County district attorney, says there are better ways to improve Mississippi’s economy than relying on prisons. 

“We’re spending money, not helping the problem and we can continue to see the budget increasing more and more towards spending more money on incarceration than things that are important like education and public safety and infrastructure,” Owens said.

McNeal adds that determining if the economic benefit of the prison in his town is hard for another reason. 

“It’s difficult to gauge the impact on the economy is because a large portion of the staff at South Mississippi correctional are people who are driving from Mobile or Washington County, Alabama, Wayne County,”  McNeal said. “You know, there are people that drive an hour one way to work.”