For a couple of decades, Mississippi pursued two concurrent strategies when it came to incarceration — and one apparently unwitting but clearly illegal one.
Lawmakers in the 1990s adopted a “lock ’em up and throw away the key mentality” to crime, passing the harshest truth-in-sentencing law in the country. To make space for all these newly incarcerated and their lengthier sentences, the state embarked at the same time on a prison-building binge, adding thousands of new prison beds, mostly in newly authorized private prisons and in county-operated regional jails.
Suddenly, the business of warehousing adult and juvenile offenders — an endeavor that in the past most parts of the state would have shunned — became a sought-after economic development engine. And lawmakers and judges were pressured to continue the flow of inmates to keep this prison space filled, the jobs in place and the profits to private prison companies or subsidies to counties intact.
What they didn’t realize is that all these prison contracts outside of the Mississippi Department of Corrections own operations created new opportunities for graft. The indictment last year of former Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps and a handful of his cronies on corruption charges exposed a system that, according to federal prosecutors, had cost Mississippi taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in overpriced or needless arrangements with prison operators, prison consultants and prison service providers.
All of this — misguided corrections and economic development policies and a corruption-ridden agency — finally caught up with the state, as corrections costs soared faster than any other area of the state budget.
Now, the pendulum has been forced by economics to swing the other way. Lawmakers have relaxed the overly harsh truth-in-sentencing law, and the courts have been encouraged to use less expensive alternative punishments for nonviolent offenders. As a result, inmate populations are steadily declining, down 14 percent in the last three years. In turn, regional jails are getting fewer state inmates and some private prisons are being shuttered because all that additional lock-up space is no longer needed. Just Friday, Epps’ replacement, Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher, announced that the 1,260-bed private prison in Leake County would be closed. It becomes the second of five state-backed private prisons to be shuttered, following the closure of Greenwood’s Delta Correctional Facility four years ago.
Mississippi lost its way for a couple of decades, forgetting that prison space is expensive real estate that should be reserved for offenders who pose the greatest risk to society. Once incarceration got confused with economic development, it set Mississippi on a path to lock up more people than was either wise or just.
The imminent closure of Walnut Grove is yet another sign that the state is moving toward a more reasonable balance between public safety and public cost.