View Full Version : Mississippi - State can't pay prison contracts

07-02-2002, 06:14 PM
State can't pay prison contracts

JACKSON - Mississippi is taking steps to break its contracts with private prisons because the state has no money to pay for them, state officials said Monday.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections on Friday sent letters to the companies that run the state's five private prisons, saying the state is ending the contracts. The new state budget year began Monday.

MDOC officials say inmates will remain in the five prisons and the state will take over operations.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is having a closed-door meeting with private prison officials today in Jackson to discuss the contracts, his spokeswoman, Lee Ann Mayo, told The Associated Press.

Mayo said Musgrove might call a special legislative session to deal with private prisons.

Musgrove and MDOC Commissioner Robert Johnson say the state has no money for private prisons because the governor vetoed part of a corrections budget bill in April and legislators never overrode the veto.

Some lawmakers said they didn't have to override because an attorney general's opinion said a partial veto was invalid. Musgrove disagreed.

However, Attorney General Mike Moore said he's worried about public safety.

"When the people who work at the private prisons read in the paper that they are not going to have any payments from the state, they're going to worry about whether they have a job or not," Moore said. "What happens if there's a mass exodus of guards from the prisons?"

The private prisons are in Marshall, Leflore and Wilkinson counties, Meridian and Walnut Grove.

The state's contracts with the prisons say Mississippi can break the operating agreements if no money is available.

House Penitentiary Committee Chairman Bennett Malone said he's "thoroughly disgusted" with MDOC for trying to break the contracts.

"This is asinine," Malone said Monday. "For the first time since the governor has been in office, I think he is making a terrible mistake. This is not a way to run a railroad."

Malone, who has a private prison in his district, said the state should honor its contracts because "we asked those people to come in here and run those facilities."

Moore said nobody from the governor's office or MDOC contacted his office about plans to break contracts.

"They have not discussed this with us at all, which is very unusual and irresponsible," Moore said.

Griffin said corrections officials spent most of Monday making plans for MDOC to take over operation of the private prisons. She said officials are "looking on the possibility that the security staff there would be maintained" but that MDOC would move its own leaders into administrative roles.

On April 9, at the end of the regular session, Musgrove vetoed part of the MDOC budget that would have barred the transfer of money from the $54.7 million allocated for private prisons. He wanted Johnson to have flexibility to move money from any category of the corrections budget into any other category.

An opinion written by Deputy Attorney General Michael Lanford said a governor does not have the authority to veto the parts of a budget bill that specify the way money can be spent. Because of that, Lanford wrote, Musgrove's veto of part of the corrections budget was "null and void."

Moore said Monday that he stands by Lanford's opinion.

Overriding a veto takes a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate. The governor said lawmakers lost their chance to override once the regular session ended.

State spending on private prisons has been a hard-fought topic, with Musgrove saying some legislators have tried to protect private prisons at the expense of education.

Lawmakers have already been called back to one special session this year, for a Nissan expansion tax break package. Other special sessions might still be called.

Only the governor can call a special session. Musgrove usually calls special sessions on single issues.