Mississippi officials plan to close a privately-run prison in Leake County in September, another sign of Mississippi’s falling prison population after lawmakers cut prison sentences.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections announced Friday that it would close the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, which is run by Utah-based Management and Training Corp. Commissioner Marshall Fisher said he made the decision because of lower-than-requested state funding in the budget year beginning July 1, as well as the decreasing number of inmates.
The department says it will transfer 900 prisoners at Walnut Grove to state-run facilities. MTC runs three other private prisons in Lauderdale, Marshall and Wilkinson counties.
Fisher said MTC’s 215 employees at Walnut Grove could apply for jobs at other state prisons. However, the move could be a financial disaster for the 1,900 resident-town in Leake County, Mayor Brian Gomillion said.
Mississippi’s incarceration rate, formerly the second-highest in the country behind Louisiana, has been falling since lawmakers passed a bill in 2014 cutting sentences. A report released this week by the Brennan Center shows the incarceration rate had already fallen by 10 percent from 2006 to 2014, partly the result of measures taken under Gov. Haley Barbour to release some inmates.
Walnut Grove has been under federal court oversight since 2012, after a judge found abusive conditions for juveniles. Juveniles were removed, but problems with high assault rates and lack of proper supervision for inmates persisted until the state removed maximum security prisoners. The Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the plaintiffs that sued over conditions, hailed the closure.
“As our state has adopted more effective ways to ensure public safety, our prisons have become increasingly populated by empty beds,” said the center’s Jody Owens. “Maintaining these facilities benefits no one other than for-profit prison operators. We urge state officials to take a closer look at other prisons for closure.”
Owens said the lawsuit would continue to provide protections for juveniles who were moved to a new facility in Rankin County, and said the plaintiffs could explore whether court-ordered protections at Walnut Grove could follow inmates to other prisons. The state has asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to end the lawsuit, citing improving conditions at Walnut Grove. However, Grace Simmons Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, said that the state closed Walnut Grove because it cost the most to run of the four MTC prisons. In part because of the court case, even though some Walnut Grove units are empty.
“MDOC’s budget is lower than what we anticipated,” Commissioner Marshall Fisher, who is unrelated to the spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Pursuant to an intensive budget review and evaluation, we have determined this is the most prudent action. We have the space in our state-run prisons to house the 900 inmates at Walnut Grove.”
The state pays MTC $14.6 million a year to run Walnut Grove.
“We are disappointed by the news but also understand the state must do what’s in the best interest of the taxpayers,” MTC Senior Vice President of Corrections Bernie Warner said in a statement. MTC touted its improvements at Walnut Grove since it took over in 2012.
Fisher has closed four community work centers and cut the number of inmates in county work programs and county-run regional jails.
Gomillion said the closure would seriously harm his town’s finances and economy. The mayor said he learned about the closure from media reports and criticized Fisher and Gov. Phil Bryant for not consulting him.
“It’s obvious he doesn’t care about the community and the investment this community has put in for the facility,” Gomillion said.
He said the town also relies on the $180,000 a year in payments the prison makes in lieu of property taxes and for water, natural gas and sewerage. That money allows the town to maintain a full-time police force, he said. Aldermen were having an emergency meeting Friday to discuss the closure.