View Full Version : Prisoner rights attorney for Mississippi is concerned about overcrowding

04-04-2004, 11:52 AM
Prison rights attorney wants to know

Prisoner rights attorney Ron Welch says he is tickled over the reopening of Delta Correctional Facility.

He is wondering, though, how Mississippi intends to jam 950 inmates in a space designed for 780 and stay in compliance with a federal court order that regulates prison conditions.

"I was for (the reopening), but I'm not for violating the court order by housing more inmates than the capacity and the structure allow," Welch said.

Last week, the Mississippi Department of Corrections moved its first 40 inmates from the state Penitentiary at Parchman to the Greenwood private prison. It expects to transfer about 90 inmates per week for the next three months until reaching 950 medium-security male inmates.

Welch, the longtime court-appointed attorney charged with monitoring the state's compliance with the landmark ruling in the 1972 Gates v. Collier prison lawsuit, questions where there is space for that many inmates.

Prior to the closing of Delta Correctional in October 2002, it was listed as having a 1,000-inmate capacity. One of its pods, which formerly housed 220 inmates, is being converted into a new Leflore County Jail. That would appear to leave room for 780 inmates.

Last week, Welch filed a written request with the Attorney General's Office for architectural drawings and other information to show that the new arrangement will be in compliance with the court's requirements.

Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps says there will not be a problem once alterations are made in consultation with Corrections Corporation of America, the private firm given the contract to again operate the facility.

"We knew, DOC and CCA, that we were going to have to make modifications for 950 inmates, and we are prepared to do that," he said.

Epps said taking the prison out of mothballs is not only restoring jobs to Leflore County but also saving money for the state's taxpayers. CCA is expected to employ 180 to 200 persons when the facility is fully operational. At $30 a day per inmate, the state will pay CCA an estimated $10.4 million a year - $1.3 million less than what it would cost to keep those inmates at Parchman, according to Epps.

"Everyone I know is happy except for Attorney Welch," Epps said.

Welch opposed the closure of the Greenwood prison when it was ordered by then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in an effort to reduce corrections costs. Welch said that Delta did a better job than most of the state's other prison facilities at educating and working inmates.

"Most every inmate there was about something constructive. That was a great loss," Welch said.

The Jackson attorney, though, said the proposed inmate population for Delta adds to his concerns that the state is once again guilty of prison overcrowding.

Welch contends that the Department of Corrections has been holding for months more inmates at various facilities than the court-prescribed maximums. He has asked federal Magistrate Jerry A. Davis to hold MDOC in contempt.

As of March 30, according to a Welch, there were just 505 empty beds in the state's entire 21,500-bed prison system and at least one facility, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County, exceeded its capacity. With only 35 vacancies in county jails, which are authorized to hold up to 2,176 state inmates overall, Welch believes that many county facilities are exceeding their capacities as well.

"In short, we've got more prisoners than we've got beds, and nobody is doing anything to control that flow," Welch said.

Although the numbers do not include space at the Greenwood prison, he said its reopening will provide temporary relief at best, since the state plans to shut down at the same time four camps at Parchman.

Welch has also questioned the motivation of Gov. Haley Barbour in fulfilling his campaign pledge to reopen Delta Correctional Facility.

Welch claimed the Republican administration is being influenced by the political contributions of CCA in assigning additional inmates to the Greenwood prison. The extra 170 inmates would equate to more than $1.8 million in additional payment to CCA over a year's time. The Nashville-based firm gave last year $110,000 to the Republican Governors Association, which in turn funneled $4.25 million into Barbour's campaign.

In a letter delivered March 30 to Barbour and his chief of staff, Charlie Williams, Welch wrote, "Please do not underestimate, as you appear to have done in not consulting me re(garding) contract negotiations on the number of Delta prisoners to be awarded to major gubernatorial contributor CCA, with my professional duty, which I will do without fail to represent my clients, even if the effect of that representation is not in Haley Barbour's or Charles Williams' best political interests."

Welch said he does not "begrudge" his former classmate at the University of Mississippi School of Law for trying to repay political favors. Welch himself was a minor contributor to Barbour's campaign, giving $125.

"He's very pro-CCA, and that's not a bad thing, as long as it doesn't violate the court order," Welch said.

Contacted Friday, Barbour spokesman Pete Smith said he had not seen the letter and was unable to comment about it.