View Full Version : Mississippi's Available beds are indicator of future prison populations


Amy
05-12-2004, 10:57 AM
By: Tim Kalich , Editor 05/11/2004

'You build them, they are going to be full,' attorney says


The rates of illiteracy, joblessness and single-parent households have all been cited as reliable indicators of future prison populations.

The most reliable indicator of all, however, is the number of prison beds available, according to prisoner rights attorney Ron Welch.

"It's a 'Field of Dreams' effect," Welch told the Greenwood Rotary Club Monday. "You build them, they are going to be full."

Welch has watched the state's prison population and corrections budget balloon over the past three decades.

In 1972, Mississippi's corrections system consisted of 1,800 inmates, 100 employees and one facility - the state Penitentiary at Parchman. The corrections budget was about $1 million annually.

Today, there are 21,000 inmates being housed in three state-operated prisons, five private prisons, 11 regional jails as well as a host of county jails and community work centers. The corrections budget this year was $290 million.

"Those are big bucks that we are spending, and we're one of the poorest states in the country," he said.

The corrections budget is draining money away from education, health care and other state priorities, Welch said. Mississippi currently spends about four times as much housing a prisoner as it does educating a public school child, he said.

Welch said the prison expansion that has occurred in the past decade has been fueled heavily by the economic motivations of private prison operators, prison builders and prison communities, which see the lock-ups as engines of economic development.

Politicians want to please all of these, Welch said.
Welch credits the private prison lobbyists for the "truth-in-sentencing" law that Congress passed in the mid-1990s, which encouraged states to require that certain violent offenders serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for release. Mississippi adopted an even stricter law, applying the 85 percent rule to all felonies.

Although the Legislature two years ago relaxed the rule for some non-violent offenders, Welch said it has not gone far enough to curb the inmate population, which has more than doubled in Mississippi since the truth-in-sentencing law was enacted.

Welch said the law should be further amended to give judges more discretion in sentencing offenders. Also, he said, the Department of Corrections should be given more flexibility to reward inmates who work or go to school with additional time off their sentences. Welch said that incentive is one of the few carrots that works in molding inmate behavior.

"If you can reduce your prison sentence by standing on your head and scratching your nose, they'll do it. It's OK in the prison culture to do it."

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