Spend More On Books, Not Bars, Report Says

A nonprofit group's review of Mississippi spending on corrections says money now going to private jails could be better spent on more effective rehabilitation programs.

Changing spending priorities "will free up taxpayer dollars for education and prevention programs that have been shown to deter individuals from committing criminal acts,'' according to the report entitled, "Education v. Incarceration: A Mississippi Case Study.''

The study by Grassroots Leadership of Charlotte, N.C., was the topic of a news conference Monday in Jackson. It is one of many such studies examining Southern states and their policies on spending taxpayer dollars for corrections and education.

Si Kahn, the group's executive director, said Mississippi is one of several states where for-profit private prison companies are most deeply entrenched.

"We're asking Mississippi and other states to say, 'What kind of a future do we want to build and how best do we build that?','' Kahn said. "For me, the lesson is public policy shouldn't be determined by long-term contracts that benefit a private corporation.''

Steve Owen, a spokesman for Corrections Corp. of America, the company that operates the Delta Correctional Facility in Greenwood and the Wilkinson County facility in Woodville, said private companies were invited to come to the state to help with an overcrowded prison system. Owen took issue with the reports claim that Mississippi had become a moneymaking engine for these companies.

"I don't think that the state making a requirement that private companies reflect a 5 percent cost savings is using profit as a factor in their corrections policy. The 5 percent savings, that's money that can be devoted to other important issues, like education,'' Owen said.

The report said Mississippi spends more to incarcerate a person ($10,672) than to send someone to college ($6,871).

"Mississippi is prioritizing locking up nonviolent offenders over preserving and expanding access to higher education for its citizens,'' the report said.

House Penitentiary Committee Chairman Bennett Malone, D-Carthage, said Mississippi has made major strides to deal with issues raised in the report. To reduce the state's growing prison population and rising costs of incarceration, state lawmakers last year changed the law requiring inmates to serve 85 percent of their jail time. Nonviolent offenders are eligible for early parole after serving at least one-fourth of their sentences and must have been sentenced to at least a year.

"I really get frustrated with this type stuff,'' Malone of the report. "Yeah, we got a huge prison population, just like other states have. But we are modernizing our prison system, not just through facilities, but through programs.''