Mississippi Lawmakers Fail To Reduce Private Prison Money

The Mississippi House on Tuesday rejected a proposal to reduce spending on private prisons, but Gov. Ronnie Musgrove says a private prison in the Delta still will be closed in September. One legislative leader warned of possible legal repercussions from failure of the bill.

"It puts us in the precarious position of being sued by the private prison companies,'' said House Speaker Tim Ford, D-Baldwyn.

Musgrove targeted Delta Correctional Facility in Leflore County for closure as he renegotiated contracts with five privately managed prisons. Corrections officials say Mississippi's prison system has too many medium-custody beds like those at Delta Correctional. Musgrove had asked lawmakers to back his decision by cutting spending to the private facilities.

The House rejected the bill on a 51-64 vote. The Senate, which first defeated bill, passed it 34-14 after some political arm-twisting. After the vote, Musgrove said it was unfortunate that a majority of House members wanted to fund private prison beds that are unneeded.

Musgrove vetoed the appropriation for the private prisons during the regular legislative session in the spring, and the veto was never overriden. Legislative leaders said an attorney general's opinion found that veto invalid. The issue has not been addressed by the courts.

Attorney General Mike Moore said Musgrove's attempted veto didn't remove any money from the funding bill. He said the sections vetoed dealt with purposes and conditions of how to spend money. He said the total $233 million appropriations remains intact.

Moore said the governor can close any prison he wants, renegotiate any contract he wants.

"He could that last month; he can do that now,'' Moore said. "There was no need for the Legislature to act. The Legislature's inaction doesn't impact him.''

Musgrove said he'll call another special session this fall to address the private prison contracts. The governor said inmates from Delta Correctional will shifted to other facilities. Corrections Commission Robert Johnson said Mississippi will have no need for at least next 18 months for the medium security beds at the prison.

"We are doing what's right and fiscally responsible,'' Johnson said.

Musgrove set out after the 2002 session to renegotiate the state's private prison contracts. He called lawmakers into special session to reduce funding as means of ratifying the revised contracts. Ford said the private prisons would expect to be paid based on the money appropriated by the Legislature.

Legislative leaders argued Musgrove had the authority to close the Leflore prison, regardless of what action the House and Senate took. Delta lawmakers said about 200 jobs will be lost in one of the poorest regions of the country from which factories have already fled.

Sen. Robert "Bunky'' Huggins, R-Greenwood, said the prison payroll alone brings $5 million into the community. He said Leflore County agreed as far back as the 1970s to house state inmates locally when other communities would not. He said now the community was being punished.

The bill would have reduced the appropriation to private prisons from $54 million to $48 million. Musgrove has said the state would reap an immediate savings of about $6 million on renegotiated private prison contracts.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, said savings would be only about $1 million. The other roughly $5 million dollars in savings comes from unused prison construction money that's been sitting in a fund, he said. The $5 million in construction money would have been used instead of state general fund dollars to pay prison debt, freeing up that money for other state needs.

Delta lawmakers failed in both chambers to require the Mississippi Department of Corrections to find jobs for about 200 workers being displaced by the closing of the Leflore prison.

"I think the commissioner looks at this as a management tool,'' said Rep. Linda Coleman, D-Mound Bayou, who handled the bill in the House. "What they are saying is our beds would be better served somewhere else. We don't need medium security beds. How the decision was made between Delta and Marshall County, the other medium security private prison, I don't know.''

Gordon told senators the state needs the $6 million elsewhere in state government. Musgrove has argued for two years that the state is spending too much money on private prison beds, many of which are not filled.