PLN editor quoted in article on Mississippi prison labor
A Mississippi Work Program for Inmates Is Set to Vanish
By ALAN BLINDER
POPLARVILLE, Miss. — With the lunch hour near and the temperature — already at 81 degrees — rising, the only souls in sight outside the courthouse here were two men taking turns aiming a pressure washer’s nozzle at the steps of the building.
No lawyers. No police officers or jailers. No passers-by. Just two state prisoners, dressed in uniforms with thick stripes of green and white — trustees on work detail, a common sight across the South and many other parts of the country.
But by the time the summer ends, such work details — where inmates perform tasks like cutting grass or painting for local governments and their agencies — will be overhauled here in Mississippi, the latest state to scale back work opportunities for inmates.
Although the programs were once regarded as sources of cheap — or free — labor for local governments, as well as employment for trusted inmates, officials in some states have concluded that they are too expensive to maintain. The effect is that while state prison systems can save money — $3.2 million a year in the case of Mississippi, according to state officials — many local governments are straining to find ways to replace the low-cost labor.
In a budget-cutting move, the Mississippi Department of Corrections announced on April 30 that it would shut down a program that paid counties to take in state inmates who worked free for local governments in return for shortened sentences. The change, scheduled to begin Aug. 1, is expected to affect more than 600 inmates. Other states that have reduced similar programs include North Carolina, Michigan and Florida.
“We expect more hard decisions in the future, and we will continue to look for ways to effectively and efficiently manage this agency,” Marshall L. Fisher, the state’s new corrections commissioner, said in a letter to the president of the Mississippi Sheriffs’ Association. “The old way of doing business is no longer a viable option.”
But for the dozens of counties and municipalities that rely on prisoner labor collectively worth tens of millions of dollars each year, the so-called old way has been a fiscal lifeline for public needs and wants. Here in Pearl River County, where about 55,000 people live near the Louisiana border, state inmates launder jail uniforms, repair Sheriff’s Department vehicles and collect litter from roadsides. They also clean certain high school athletic facilities and government buildings, and assist with local events, like the Blueberry Jubilee, while the state pays the county $20 daily for every inmate housed in its jail.
The sheriff, David Allison, has estimated that it would cost $1.8 million a year to replace the inmates with traditional government workers who receive salaries and benefits.
“We don’t have it,” Sheriff Allison said. “There’s no way to come up with that much without raising taxes, and no one wants to raise taxes.”
Sheriff Allison, who said he was prohibited from using the county’s pretrial inmates for labor, said that if Mr. Fisher’s plan moved ahead, he would ask judges to consider compelling people who are sentenced to community service to work at the jail.
Counties elsewhere are considering options that include litigation and service reductions. The Mississippi Association of Supervisors, which represents elected officials in Mississippi’s 82 counties, estimated that 29 counties stood to lose more than $21 million collectively if the state’s plan moved ahead.
The association also said that the approach would jeopardize municipal budgets. One city in the Mississippi Delta, Cleveland, could face a $451,000 shortfall.
But critics of inmate work programs argue that prisoners’ jobs that could be given to people who are not incarcerated and that the programs are hardly windfalls.
“Prison slave labor isn’t free; someone’s paying for it, and, typically, it’s a state subsidy to the counties,” said Paul Wright, the executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center and the editor of Prison Legal News. “At the end of the day, even when the prisoners are being totally exploited and paid nothing, the labor itself is far from free.”
Mississippi’s plan calls for the inmates to be moved to existing state-owned community work centers, where local governments could still request the prisoners’ assistance. But officials like Sheriff Allison say the work centers tend to be far from the counties that have long relied on state inmates, making it impractical for many local governments to use the prisoners.
“The impact on the inmates is going to be very small,” said Ronald R. Welch, a prisoners’ rights lawyer in Jackson who supports the current program. “On the whole, they’re going to be in the same situation, just in a different location.”
Mr. Fisher has said little about his plan, and a spokeswoman declined to make the corrections commissioner available for an interview. But Mr. Fisher has tried to portray the changes as financially prudent.
“One of my most significant duties is to be a good steward of taxpayers’ money,” Mr. Fisher wrote in his letter to the president of the sheriffs’ association in April. He added that even if lawmakers had fully funded his department and given it an additional $10 million in discretionary funds, he still would have ordered the shift in strategy because the existing program “is simply not an efficient use of taxpayers’ money.”
During a Tuesday appearance at a gathering of sheriffs, Mr. Fisher indicated that he would not abandon his plan. But Sheriff Greg Waggoner of Leake County, which participates in the program, said Mr. Fisher had hinted at a possible compromise: allowing counties to keep inmates in their jails, but without compensation from the state. To some sheriffs, the idea held little appeal.
“That may work in a county that has plenty of money,” said Sheriff Waggoner, whose county has about 23,000 people. “But rural counties like ourselves, without some payment for them, we wouldn’t be able to pay for the officers to oversee them. It would destroy our budget.”
Cutting work programs is an easy solution to state budget problems, Mr. Wright, the editor of Prison Legal News, said. “They’re not doing anything that’s vital to their operations,” he said, “and the day of the factory prison or the agricultural prison that was economically self-sufficient, that day passed 50, 60, 70 years ago, and it’s not coming back.”
In Mississippi, some prisoners have lamented the expected overhaul. Breland Freeman, who was convicted of drug charges in one of the state’s northernmost counties, served part of his sentence in Poplarville, a drive of about five hours from his hometown. Mr. Freeman, 30, said he thought that the local jails were safer than the state’s notorious penitentiaries and that they offered better opportunities.
“The Pearl River County jail probably saved my life,” Mr. Freeman, whom Sheriff Allison selected for an interview, said in the jail’s laundry room last month. “I’d probably be disfigured sitting in a prison. It’s just too dangerous. I committed a crime, but I deserve the right to have a second chance, man. This place gave me that.”
Within days of the interview, Mr. Freeman was released from the jail here as part of his scheduled transition to a community corrections program.
With Mr. Fisher poised to continue with his plan, Sheriff Allison has been left to imagine what will happen once the inmate work program changes. His expectations, he said, are disappointing.
“I don’t know why we have such a litter problem in this county, but we do,” he said. “If we lose that, it won’t be a month, and this county is going to look as trashy as it can be.”