CCA not likely to have inmates before June

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 8, 2009

NATCHEZ — On Dec. 1 Corrections Corporation of America completed construction at its new prison on U.S. 84, but the facility is without prisoners.

Warden Vance Laughlin said the facility looks great.

The halls are quiet, the beds are empty and there aren’t any guards on duty.

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And that won’t change anytime soon.

Laughlin said he’s not expecting any inmates until at least June.

The hold up comes from a missing, but crucial, federal contract.

Once in place, it’s the contract that will fill the jail with the all-important prisoners.

The contract, which was originally expected to be in place by Oct. 1, is “delayed indefinitely,” Laughlin said.

Laughlin said he’s hoping it will be in place by the first quarter of this year.

But once the contract is in place it will be at least 120 days before the prison sees its first inmate.

That 120-day period will be used for hiring and training guards and other employees.

And there’s no clear answer on exactly what’s stalling the contract.

Laughlin said he thinks the general economic slow-down has had an impact on the contract.

Additionally, the money to be used for the contract has not been finalized.

CCA marketing director Steve Owen said he attributes some of the delay to administrative changes as high up as the White House.

Owen said those changes have an impact on Congress, which ultimately controls the budget for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

And Congress has yet to finalize the bureau’s 2009 budget.

“Government contracts can move slowly,” Owen said. “Sometimes these things can just drag out.”

But the slow pace of progress isn’t reason for concern, Owen said.

Owen said he’s confident the federal contract will come through — but if it doesn’t there are other options.

“Still our focus is on what we pitched the facility for,” he said of CCA’s intent to pursue a federal contract.

Both Laughlin and Owen said if the federal contract fails, the prison can, and will, pursue other contracts.

But until CCA secures a contract, there’s work to be done.

Laughlin and a skeleton crew staff are taking care of “punch-list” items and doing preventative maintenance.

Since the prison is built to be in constant use, sitting dormant is detrimental to the facility, Laughlin said.

So to protect CCA’s investment, crews are flushing toilets, running the heating and cooling systems and even working with kitchen equipment.

“It just can’t sit empty,” Laughlin said. “It has to be used, it was made to be used.”

At Laughlin’s last stint as warden, in Georgia, the facility sat unused for nearly three years.

And when that facility finally housed inmates, virtually everything broke down in a matter of weeks.

“It was a nightmare,” he said.

Laughlin said he has no reason to believe the Adams County facility be empty nearly that long.

But everything depends on the contract, Laughlin said.

The prison also won’t be hiring any of the 409 employees they think they’ll need until the contract comes.

And right now Laughlin has been getting regular visitors, sometimes up to 20 a day, to the facility — and they’re all looking for work.

Laughlin said when the time comes to start hiring, the jobs will be highly publicized.

“You’ll have to live in Alaska not to know we’re hiring.”