By David Howell
WATER VALLEY – You could say the press release from the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) on April 30 announcing the end of the Joint State County Work Program was untimely. The announcement from MDOC Commissioner Marshall Fisher last Thursday arrived on the same day Yalobusha County completed construction on a new building designed to house 20 state inmates that would be enrolled in work program.
The release reported the inmates would be removed on August 1, ending the Joint State County Work Program in 30 counties across the state. Yalobusha’s participation would have marked the 31st county that utilize the non-violent state inmates that provide labor on government-owned property including grounds-keeping, janitorial work, litter pickup and other jobs.
The county’s new building was constructed alongside the new county jail and was designed to meet state standards for the program. In addition to the labor, the inmates would also have provided a revenue stream for the county, as MDOC pays $20 per day, per inmate for housing. The new building was designed to house 20 inmates, which in turn would generate almost $150,000 in annual revenue for housing the prisoners.
Board of Supervisors President Tommy Vaughn addressed the issue at the “first Monday” meeting, reporting that work was underway to lobby Fisher to reverse his decision.
“This board has been transparent from the beginning and we are going to stay that way. We have done our business in front of everybody. When problems arise we are going to discuss them where everybody will know where we are coming from,” Vaughn first explained.
Vaughn then recalled the county had received assurances from former MDOC Commissio-ner Chris Epps on multiple occasions that the inmates would be provided.
“We had been working with previous Commissioner Epps for a number of years. I can’t say we were promised, but we were assured we would have inmates to work in the county,” Vaughn explained.
Epps was indicted on 40 counts of bribery, money laundering, conspiracy and tax charges last year and stepped down as MDOC Commissioner. Fisher was appointed by Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant in January to overhaul the ailing agency.
“The day we got it completed, I got a letter from Fisher,” Vaughn added.
In the letter, Fisher said the inmates would be moved on August 1 to the agency’s 17 community work centers, where the inmates will still be available to perform work for the counties. The nearest community work centers are located in Quitman and Leflore counties, making the distance an impediment to bring the inmates to work in Yalobusha County.
Fisher’s press release also said the impending action is one of several hard decisions his administration will make in restructuring the inmate population in response to a population shift. According to Fisher, the prison system is experiencing an increase in the number of offenders on supervisors in communities as the incarcerated population decreases.
“We won’t miss them because we never had them. But we wanted them for the work we have to do. And we were counting on them for a little bit of finances to offset some of the cost of the jail, that’s just some of the problems we are looking at,” Vaughn added.
Vaughn said the fight continues to get Fisher to reverse his decision, with the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, the Mississippi Sheriff’s Association and the Chancery Clerk’s Association lobbying for the counties, along with senators and representatives across the state.
“They pay us $20 an inmate, they have to pay the (community work centers) facilities where they are taking them $43, it just don’t make a lot of sense,” Vaughn added.
“There is a lot of fighting going on to keep them. We certainly hope to, we don’t know whether we can or not. If we can’t, people ask me ‘What are you going to do about that building you just built?’” Vaughn explained.
“Well, anytime you do something, you have to have an alternative plan in case something falls through. We got one. If need be, we have uses for that building that will benefit the county greatly. But we are not going to do that until we have exhausted every opportunity we have to keep those inmates in the county,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn then turned to Board Attorney John Crow to read a rough draft of a letter Crow had prepared on behalf of supervisors. The letter is addressed to MDOC Commissioner Marshall Fisher and outlines the problems Vaughn had discussed in the meeting.
“Can we also address that to the Governor,” Sheriff Lance Humphreys added after the letter was read during Monday’s meeting.
“And the Lt. Governor,” Vaughn agreed.
Speaking at Monday’s meeting, Humphreys explained that Sheriff Steve Rushing in Lincoln County first caught wind of the MDOC decision to pull the inmates and called Humphreys.
“We started calling people, that’s what got all this going,” Humphreys explained.
Rushing, Humphreys, Tate County Sheriff Brad Lance and Copiah County Sheriff Harold Jones were interviewed for a Clarion Ledger story published Friday, “MDOC Chief Riles Mississippi Sheriffs.” The sheriffs explained the impact of the decision in their respective counties.