The numbers are actually a bit more complicated. The average -- as opposed to marginal -- cost of housing a prisoner in a state-run facility comes to about $50 a day, but much of that reflects fixed costs, such as staff and building maintenance. The state average is also higher in part because it includes amounts not reflected in the private and regional per-diems. These amounts include expenses for parole supervision and the higher cost of handling Mississippi's maximum-security inmates, most of whom are directly housed by the state.
Throughout January and February, legislators, wardens and county supervisors deluged the corrections department with pleas for prisoners. Mr. Johnson had no qualms about putting criminals behind bars. He had done it for most of his career as a cop. But it disturbed him to hear burglars, drug dealers and car thieves being portrayed as valuable assets.
"The sole focus for many people is economic development: 'We can make money off of inmates,' " he says. "That's just gotten a little too skewed for my liking."
One frequent caller to the corrections department was Charles Weissinger Jr., a lawyer, lobbyist and former state legislator who had helped plan the first two regional prisons in the 1990s. He now has contracts with six regional prisons to provide legal and other advice. A report released in July by the state legislature's auditing agency says these clients will pay him at least $332,000 this year.
As spring neared, Mr. Weissinger implored Mr. Johnson and his aides to restore the regional prisons to their full, 250-inmate capacity. The lobbyist recalls saying that if extra prisoners had to come out of the private prisons, so be it, because the regionals are "the littlest and the poorest." Mr. Johnson didn't budge.
Wackenhut's local lobbyist, Al Sage, made his own appeals. The folksy, silver-haired Mr. Sage, 53, is known for his dogged style. "If the capitol doors are open, I'm over there," he says. Sage Advice, his one-man firm in Jackson, had been hired by Wackenhut in 1994, when the prison-building push began. The prison company was his best client in 2000, accounting for $30,000 of his $124,100 in total revenue.
Begging for inmates had become a big part of Mr. Sage's job. By mid-March, the inmate count at the Wackenhut-run Holly Springs prison had fallen below 800. Mr. Calabrese, the company's president, recalls telling Mr. Sage the prison needed at least 900 inmates to cover costs and generate a "reasonable" profit, which the company declines to specify. The lobbyist repeated the 900 minimum to any lawmaker who would listen.
On March 22, Mr. Calabrese paid a visit to Mr. Johnson for a conversation both men describe the same way. They sat in the commissioner's conference room, facing a color-coded map of Mississippi prisons. Mr. Calabrese asked if he could expect more inmates anytime soon. The answer was no.