Mississippi's Prison-Building Spree Creates Glut of Lockups and Struggle for Convicts
By BRYAN GRULEY Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
JACKSON, Miss. -- With a lobbyist at his side, Wayne Calabrese sat down to a friendly dinner here with two Mississippi state senators in late March. The restaurant's player piano plinked nearby while Mr. Calabrese, president and chief operating officer of Wackenhut Corrections Corp., described his company's extraordinary problem.
Two hundred miles north, at a Wackenhut-run prison in Holly Springs, Miss., 130 steel bunks stood bare and unused in two cavernous cell blocks. Wackenhut had closed the units because it no longer had inmates to fill them. Every day, the empty space was costing the company money it had expected to be paid by the state. Mr. Calabrese recalls telling the senators Wackenhut couldn't afford so many empty beds, and he hoped they could help.
Even after Mississippi built 15 prisons in seven years, nobody thought the day would come when there weren't enough felons to fill every cell. But that day came this year, when the state found itself with 2,000 more prison beds than prisoners.
The companies and counties that provide those beds responded with a bold request: Pay us for cells Mississippi doesn't need. So persuasive were prison operators that state lawmakers at one point wrote legislation that, according to corrections commissioner Robert Johnson, set aside millions of dollars for empty prison beds -- or "ghost inmates."
The prisons won this favor even as lawmakers were cutting state budgets for classroom supplies, community colleges, mental-health services and other programs. "We've got this all wrong," Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore says. "We're the poorest state in the union, and we're investing money in failures."
After two decades of stuffing ever more prisons with ever more prisoners, many states are looking to reverse that grim trend. What unfolded in Mississippi after Mr. Calabrese's evening with the senators shows how hard that could be.
Prison expansion here -- as in many states -- spawned a new set of vested interests with stakes in keeping prisons full and in building more. In Mississippi, those interests include private prison companies and their lobbyists, legislators with prisons in their districts, counties that operate their own prisons and sheriffs who covet convicts for local jails. The result has been a financial and political bazaar, with convicts in stripes as the prize.
The number of people behind bars in the U.S. has nearly quadrupled in the past 20 years -- to about two million -- and prison overcrowding persists in many states. But as crime has declined, some