Clergy ask gov. to take prison from private company

In wake of a lawsuit alleging neglect and abuse of prisoners, a group of Miss. clergy is calling upon Gov. Phil Bryant to have state take back control of East Miss Correctional Facility

By Terri Ferguson Smith
The Meridian Star, Miss.

MERIDIAN, Miss. — In the wake of a lawsuit alleging neglect and abuse of prisoners, a group of Mississippi clergy is calling upon Gov. Phil Bryant to have the state take back control of the East Miss Correctional Facility, a 1,300 bed facility in Lauderdale County, west of Meridian.

The Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference drafted a letter asking the governor to end privatization of the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, according to the Rev. Tom Clark, who helped draft the letter. In a recent interview with Clark and the Rt. Rev. Duncan M. Gray, III of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi, Clark said privately run operations often do better than governments, except for prisons.

"They have no incentive, really, to improve and to rehabilitate the prisoners. They are being paid by the number of people they have. If they were being paid by how successfully they could have their prison population re-enter society, that would be one thing. But they are just trying to hold prisoners," Clark said. "They are trying to cut costs. Cutting costs reduces services. Reducing services causes failures in health care, psychiatric care for a lot of the prisoners who have mental problems."

That results in a higher rate of repeat offenders, Clark said.

The issues of health care and psychiatric failures Clark mentioned are among the many problems outlined in a May, 2013 lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The company that has operated EMCF since July, 2012, Management and Training Corporation, is not being sued by ACLU and SPLC.

"The lawsuit describes a facility where prisoners were often locked in filthy cells and ignored even when they were suffering from serious medical issues," according to a statement from SPLC. "Many cells lacked light and working toilets, forcing prisoners to use trays or plastic bags that are tossed through slots in their cell doors. Rats often climbed over prisoners’ beds. Some prisoners even captured the rats, put them on makeshift leashes and sold them as pets to other prisoners."

Gray said the incentive behind for-profit groups has to be examined carefully.

"The incentive for a for-profit prison is to house as many persons as possible," Gray said. "The state has an incentive to use the private prisons. The incentive of the state is to reduce costs and the incentive for the private, for-profit is to increase profit. It becomes kind of a perfect storm."

Clark said lawbreakers need to be held accountable for their actions, but they also need training to prepare them to re-enter society. Proponents of having the state take back control of EMCF believe that is not happening.

Authors of the lawsuit against MDOC would appear to agree, stating in the litigation that "Defendants have the duty and responsibility to provide safe and humane conditions for the prisoners in their charge."

"They have abdicated this responsibility by turning MDOC facilities over to private for-profit contractors and then failing to monitor the contractors' performance or hold them accountable," the lawsuit said. "Defendants are fully aware that their private contractors — who have a strong incentive to maximize profits at the expense of prisoner well being — routinely subject the prisoners to unconscionably harsh and dangerous conditions."

But a spokesperson for the Utah-based MTC disagrees with that assessment. Communications Director Issa Arnita said although he could not speak specifically to the claims of the lawsuit, he did want to note that the company is making improvements.

"We've changed a lot of things. We've secured things at the facility," Arnita said. "We've been very, very aggressive in our search for contraband, which is a huge issue. We're constantly looking for ways to make improvements in all areas of safety and security for the area."

As to the idea that MTC has no incentive to help prisoners re-enter society successfully, Arnita said that is not the case. He said the company was founded in 1981, working with the U.S. Labor Department's Job Corps program. Now MTC is the largest operator of Job Corps centers in the U.S., he said.

Job Corps is designed to help disadvantaged people aged 16 through 24 with vocational and academic training, according to Arnita.

"Our mission started with helping people improve their lives," Arnita said. "The idea there is to give them a job, to provide for themselves and their families and to turn their lives around. That's who MTC is."

MTC took that expertise to corrections in 1987, he said.

"These allegations that we are there just for the profit or we want them to re-offend because that makes us more money  — that's just not true," Arnita said. "Our goal is to help them change their lives."

Asked about the possibility of ending the privatization of the facility, a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Bryant said that is not on the table.

"At this time there is no interest from the governor's office of taking over that privately run prison and turning it back over to state control," said Knox Graham, deputy communications director for Bryant.

In August, MDOC announced it was seeking new proposals from private contractors to operate the state's four private prisons.     “The Mississippi Department of Corrections has determined that more security staff is needed for effective security, custody, control and care of inmates at Marshall County Correctional Facility, East Mississippi Correctional Facility, Walnut Grove Correctional Facility and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility,” Epps said. “The type of inmates we are now housing system wide requires more resources. Therefore, our current agreements will be terminated for convenience effective Nov. 30.”

According to MDOC communications director Grace Fisher, the agency received two proposals; one from Management and Training Corporation and another from New Jersey-based Community Education Centers. No decision has been made about the bids, but there will likely be a decision reached in time for new contracts to start on Dec. 1.

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