The state inked a deal to house Parchman inmates in a private prison. Is it legal?

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Mississippi House of Representatives

Rep. Bill Kinkade, R-Byhalia

Editor’s note: Several hours after this story published, Mississippi Today obtained the contract between the Mississippi Department of Corrections and CoreCivic.

Two House lawmakers want more details about the legality of an agreement to temporarily house Parchman inmates at a privately owned and operated prison in the Delta.

Late Wednesday afternoon, several people briefed on the contract between the Department of Corrections and Nashville-based CoreCivic, which owns and operates the prison, shared its details with Mississippi Today.

A budget document submitted to the Legislature on Thursday and obtained by Mississippi Today confirmed the Department of Corrections is paying CoreCivic $65 per day per inmate for housing at the private prison. Under the 90-day contract, the Department of Corrections will pay $2.1 million to CoreCivic if the planned 364 inmates are transferred.

State law allows for no more than 1,000 state inmates to be housed at the Tallahatchie Correctional Facility but mandates that “the inmate cost per day is at least 10 percent less than the inmate cost per day for housing a state inmate at a state correctional facility,” the law reads.

A legislative oversight committee last year stated the model cost per inmate per day at $53.72. Under the statutory cap, the state should not pay more than $48.35 per inmate per day to CoreCivic for inmate housing.

(Editor’s note: Charles Overby, a Mississippi Today board member and donor, serves on the CoreCivic board of directors.)

MDOC-CoreCivic Contract (Text)

Earlier, several sources who asked not to be named because they are not authorized to discuss it with the news media said the state planned to transfer 364 inmates to the private prison and would pay the prison’s parent company CoreCivic “around $60 per day per inmate.”

As news of the inmate transfer to the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility reached the Capitol on Wednesday morning, legislative leaders began questioning whether the amount was within legal bounds.

Rep. Bill Kinkade, R-Byhalia, who served as chairman of the House Corrections Committee the past four years, told Mississippi Today on Wednesday he will ask the House Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee to look into the contract.

“I understand it is an emergency situation, and I am not saying anything is wrong, but I am just curious about the details of the contract,” Kinkade said. “I just think we need to know the details of the contract.”

Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, who served as chairman of the House Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency for the past four years, said he had not seen the contract yet, but wanted to know the details, “just as soon as I can get my hands on it.”

Following a spate of violence resulting in the deaths of at least five state inmates since the new year began, the corrections department began transferring inmates from the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman to the Tallahatchie Correctional Facility, a private prison.

Efforts by Mississippi Today to obtain a copy of the full contract were unsuccessful. Officials at the Department of Corrections and in Gov. Phil Bryant’s office did not respond to numerous requests for comment on Wednesday, nor was the contract posted to the state’s transparency website by end of business.

Two hours after this story published, CoreCivic released a statement announcing the contract.

“Situations like this exemplify how critically important it is for state and federal partners to have access to our real estate assets and associated service offerings,” CoreCivic President and CEO Damon Hininger said in the release. “… Without the private sector there would be no immediate alternative solution available to the state.”

If the contract passes legal scrutiny, the Department of Corrections will need a deficit appropriation — or a special mid-year cash infusion to cover budget shortfalls for state agencies — to cover the cost of the contract.

The budget document obtained by Mississippi Today on Thursday indicated that if the planned 364 inmates are transferred to the Tallahatchie Correctional Facility, the department will need at least $2.1 million from the Legislature to cover the costs. If the statutory limit of 1,000 inmates are moved to the private prison, the department will need $5.8 million.

MDOC Deficit Request 1.9.20 (Text)

“We will have a deficit, but to what degree we do not know at this time,” said Rep. John Read, R-Gautier, who is chairman of the House Appropriations committee. “We have a number and we do have the revenue for that number, but considering everything that’s passed by recently, that number could increase and we would just have to wait and see what that number is.”

Before the latest contract with CoreCivic, the Department of Corrections paid millions annually to other private prison companies. In fiscal year 2019, the department spent $64.5 million on private prisons.

Utah-based Management and Training Corp., or MTC, operates East Mississippi Correctional Facility, Marshall County Correctional Facility and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility. A federal judge recently dismissed a lawsuit against the state over conditions at the East Mississippi facility.