Empty cells could proliferate. Last year, the nation's prison population grew by just 1.3%, its slowest pace since 1972, and state-prison populations dropped in 13 states. During the second half of 2000, the nationwide state-prison population shrank by 0.5%, its first such decline in nearly three decades.
Mississippi ranks behind only Texas and Louisiana in per-capita incarceration. But the growth of Mississippi's inmate population has slowed while its prison system has expanded. This has put Mr. Johnson, the blunt 53-year-old former police chief who runs the state corrections department, in a peculiar spot. "Everybody wants inmates," he says. "I can't help them."
Empty prison cells used to be scarcer in Mississippi than cool summer afternoons. In 1994, a federal judge threatened the state with big fines because too many state convicts were crowding local jails. Crime-conscious lawmakers rallied to then-Gov. Kirk Fordice, who vowed in his State of the State address that year to put yet more criminals behind bars. "If that means we have to build a bigger jailhouse," Mr. Fordice said, "hand me a shovel, stand back and we'll get a bigger jailhouse built."
Fifteen new prisons later, Mississippi has four main types of institutions competing for state inmates. Private companies -- Wackenhut Corrections Corp. of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., CCA of Nashville, Tenn., and Tuscolameta Inc. of Walnut Grove, Miss. -- run a total of five facilities designed to house 4,000 prisoners in exchange for payments from the state. Cash-poor counties eager for economic development operate 10 "regional" prisons where the state can rent as many as 2,500 additional beds. Some local sheriffs get paid to keep state inmates in their jails. And the state runs three of its own penitentiaries.
All told, Mississippi has bunks for about 20,700 inmates. Until last year, it was easy to keep them filled because the state in 1995 had enacted a "truth-in-sentencing" law that, like similar statutes in many other states, required all felons to serve 85% of their sentences.
Then, in June 2000, several related events expanded the supply of cells available for state inmates. First, another federal judge fined the state $1.8 million, again for packing local jails with too many state prisoners. That prompted Mr. Johnson, who had been on the job just two months, to pressure substandard jails to improve conditions, so they could legally house another 700 state inmates.
He also tinkered with prison policies to allow some well-behaved inmates to get out slightly earlier, within the bounds of the truth-in-sentencing law. The rate of inmates being released started rising just as counties opened three new regional prisons that created 750 additional spots for state inmates. By the end of last year, more than 2,000 medium-security beds