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  • mcprison mcprison Sep 7, 2001 12:19 PM Flag

    Wall St, 2

    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

 
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