This wasn't welcome news at the private and regional prisons, which depend on inmates for revenue. Since 1996, when Wackenhut opened a 1,000-bed prison in Holly Springs and CCA launched a similarly sized facility in Greenwood, the companies had enjoyed a constant supply of more than 990 inmates each. The state, which owns the prison buildings, paid about $28 a day per prisoner to the private operators. As the year ended, the head counts in each facility had slipped to about 900 and were still falling.
Prisons Are Like Airlines
Prisons that charge fees crave prisoners like airlines crave passengers. Just as an airline's costs for fuel and crew stay nearly the same no matter how full a flight, prisons carry security, staff, utility and other fixed costs that can't easily be reduced in step with a declining inmate count. So those two moth-balled 65-man units at Wackenhut's Holly Springs prison represented about $109,000 a month in lost revenue. The move cut into profit because Wackenhut didn't reduce payroll, its biggest expense there.
Likewise, each regional prison had been accustomed to having nearly all of its 250 beds filled, at daily rates of $25 to $27 per inmate. By January, the inmate counts at these facilities were hovering near 200 each. While the regionals aren't supposed to turn a profit, the counties that own and operate them rely on the revenue to pay off debt from building the prisons and to pay staff salaries.
Most regionals were built in rural areas that needed an economic boost. Bolivar County's facility, in the Mississippi River delta in the northwest part of the state, employs about 40 local people. On a recent tour of the prison, a group of cinder-block buildings surrounded by razor wire and soybean fields, state Rep. Linda Coleman pointed to a guard and said, "If we don't get [more inmates], she might get laid off."
In January, Ms. Coleman, the Democratic vice-chairwoman of the House penitentiary committee, lobbied Mr. Johnson on behalf of the Bolivar prison. She says she told him the prison needed more inmates so the county wouldn't default on $7.8 million in debt it took on to build the facility.
Sorry, he recalls telling her. In the past, the state had steered most fresh convicts to the private and regional prisons, making sure they were close to full. But Mr. Johnson says he cared more about saving money than keeping the for-pay prisons happy. Now, as space opened up in the three state-run facilities, he was directing new inmates to those prisons.
The state had agreed by contract to provide each regional facility with at least 200 inmates, which it was doing. Beyond that, he remembers telling Rep. Coleman, "I can't create any inmates."
He says he was merely following the legislature's desire to corral corrections spending, which has more than doubled since 1994, to nearly $260 million a year. In contrast to the $25 to $28 daily per-prisoner fee the state paid to keep inmates in private or regional facilities, he says