Against state flow, Woodville prison riding high

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 13, 2002

WOODVILLE &045;&045; Crime and politics drive the private prison industry, and Wilkinson County may have climbed aboard at the right time.

But how long will the ride last?

It is a question many people in the county are asking after state actions put the private prison industry’s future in doubt.

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Busy beginning

Five privately operated prisons were built in Mississippi during the late 1990s, including the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility (WCCF), which opened in 1998.

The state’s prison population soared then due to &uot;truth in sentencing&uot; laws, which required inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentences before parole eligibility.

However, lower crime rates, shorter sentences for nonviolent first-time offenders and alternative sentencing options &045;&045; such as drug courts and house arrests &045;&045; have slowed the boom in private prison construction.

Still, politics make private facilities and the jobs they create a hot issue in the Magnolia state.

Troubled future?

Last week, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove announced plans to renegotiate state contracts with private prisons.

The result, he said, will save between $6 million and $12 million. The governor said he will call a special session of the Legislature to approve the smaller private prison budgets.

Despite more than 2,500 empty state prison beds, the Legislature budgeted $54.7 million for private prison operations in the 2003 fiscal year, which began July 1.

Shortly after the legislative session ended in April, Musgrove exercised a line-item veto power to cut the $54.7 million out of a larger appropriations bill.

Attorney General Mike Moore says the governor has no such authority. Consequently, the Legislature made no move after the partial veto. And, presumably, the veto did not count.

Corrections Commissioner Robert Johnson has suggested closing or taking over privately run facilities in Greenwood and Holly Springs which house routine, medium-security inmates.

However, WCCF houses a special class of inmates for the state Department of Corrections.

&uot;WCCF is a special needs facility for inmates who require protective custody,&uot; said Chris Epps, Deputy Commissioner of Corrections.

Just more than a week ago, Epps announced that the prison’s current population of 882 would soon increase to its capacity of 1,000, which may mean additional jobs.

So, at least for the foreseeable future, WCCF is not likely to close, which is good news for Wilkinson County where the unemployment rate &045;&045; last reported at 9.5 percent in April &045;&045; nearly doubles the national average.

Big economic impact

Located three miles north of Woodville on U.S. 61, WCCF provides 228 jobs and generates an annual payroll of $5.3 million.

Warden Dolan Waller said 140 employees, or 65 percent of the current workforce, are Wilkinson County residents.

Another 62 workers commute from neighboring counties, and 14 more come from Louisiana.

Waller reported 12 vacancies on his staff in mid-June.

&uot;We have an average turnover rate of 3 percent, or about six vacancies each month,&uot; he said.

&uot;It may go higher in some months, but that’s pretty good, considering that not everyone is conducive to working in a prison environment.&uot;

Waller said WCCF also pays $429,500 annually for local utility services.

Wilkinson County Chancery Clerk Thomas Tolliver said the prison has been &uot;nothing but beneficial to the county.&uot;

Tolliver also serves on the Wilkinson County Industrial Development Authority, a non-profit entity that was formed to recruit the prison and oversee its management. The state leases the building from the Development Authority, and contracts its services to manage the prison.

The Development Authority subcontracts the actual operation of the prison to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

&uot;It’s our job to make sure CCA is running the prison in accordance with the negotiated contract, which is renewable every three to five years,&uot; Tolliver said.

&uot;The Development Authority receives $200,000 each year from CCA as a Community Impact Fee for economic development,&uot; he said, adding that the money is used to help recruit and support new industries.

&uot;We recently used some of our money from the prison to fund the

purchase of a building in Centreville where AJFC Community Action, Inc. will soon operate a Head Start program,&uot; said Tolliver.

&uot;This could provide as many as 28 more jobs that would have been lost to a neighboring county,&uot; he said.

WCCF buys some supplies directly from local vendors, but the prison’s payroll is far more significant to the local economy.

&uot;Prison workers cash their checks and buy groceries here,&uot; said Wettlin Treppendahl, owner of Treppendahl Super Foods in Woodville.

&uot;The prison’s payroll turns over locally, and that’s important,&uot; Treppendahl said.

Cost To Taxpayers

Wilkinson County and CCA are profiting from WCCF, but the taxpayers are paying the bill.

Claire Papizan, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, said the state pays a per diem based on population to operate the prison.

Papizan said the current per diems are $34.28 for each of the first 500 inmates; $31.96 for each of the next 350 inmates; and $31.03 for any inmates over the 850 mark. Papizan said CCA was paid $9.7 million to operate WCCF through the first 11 months of the 2002 fiscal year, which ended June 30.

WCCF’s per diem is higher than some other private facilities are paid.

&uot;Obviously, your staffing has to increase to provide extra security for protective custody inmates,&uot; Waller said.

&uot;And, we provide a lot of educational and rehabilitative programs that are not available at other facilities,&uot; he said.

The state is also paying the cost of building the prison.

M. Binford Williams, a Jackson attorney who represents the Development Authority, said $31.4 million was raised to fund the construction in 1996.

Williams said certificates of participation, which are similar to bonds, were sold to investors.

The Development Authority uses the yearly lease payments from the state to pay off that debt.

The state will have the option of buying the building for $1after the full term of the lease is satisfied in 2016, Williams said.

In the meantime, the facility continues to operate and churn money into the Wilkinson County economy and everyone involved is waiting for the state to make its next move and see how, if any, it will affect the prison.