Communities clamor for regional jails

Published 11:39 pm Sunday, June 28, 2009

JACKSON (AP) — There are 11 county/regional jails scattered around Mississippi. With them, the Mississippi Department of Corrections has created its own cottage industry.

Locally, the prisons provide lockups for offenders, jobs for local residents and a free labor force for public works projects. So popular are they that at least three more could open within the next year.

The question is, does the state need the beds? Yes, says Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps.

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‘‘If you need a jail, what better way to get it than sign a 20-year agreement with the state?’’ Epps said. ‘‘The reason you want as many state inmates as you can get is because we are going to pay you $29.74 per inmate per day plus we pay medical expenses.’’

What about the free labor?

‘‘These guys do things that you can’t pay people to do — putting asphalt into holes, unstopping sewer lines, painting the courthouse.’’

Epps said another thing is important.

‘‘You’ll see that they are not wealthy counties and mostly rural places. These places did not have an approved jail. They’ve got one now,’’ he said.

Chickasaw County broke ground earlier this year on its regional facility, which is to have 300 inmates, about 240 from the state.

Sheriff Jimmy Simmons said at the groundbreaking that the facility was a welcome addition.

Simmons said that the state’s contracted guarantee of inmate reimbursement will effectively pay for the facility.

‘‘We’re going to have to have it and rather than spending taxpayers’ money, we’re actually saving taxpayers money,’’ the sheriff said.

Statewide, the 11 regionals average about 277 inmates each. Epps said there are more at Bolivar and Kemper facilities.

Washington, Alcorn and Yazoo counties are in the process of bidding on regional jails. Hinds County recently scrapped its regional jail plan. A 75-bed expansion at Kemper County for female inmates will open this summer.

Epps said he will spend $34 million for regional facilities during the new fiscal year, which begins Wednesday.

Even though the overall inmate numbers are down about 600 from a year ago and lawmakers have approved new laws to reduce the population, Epps said he needs the beds at the regional facilities.

Epps said a state prison in Greene County is about 1,000 inmates over capacity, and one in Rankin County is 400 over capacity. That, he said, puts a strain on the infrastructure.

‘‘If Yazoo, Alcorn, Chickasaw and Washington were ready, I could fill them from just downsizing those two. Our facilities are tearing up real badly. When you are over capacity, you’re killing your facilities. Your bathrooms, showers, washers and dryers … weren’t built for that. You can’t keep running them like this,’’ he said.

Epps has applications from 16 other counties for regional jails. While he knows they don’t have money to build their own jail, he doubts any more regional prisons will be approved soon.

‘‘I have to be a good steward of taxpayer money. I can’t farm out inmates when I have spaces for them. That’s why I am telling them they need to look at building a jail,’’ Epps said.


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