Spencer "Buddy" Medlin, told Sen. Huggins that CCA's prison in his district needed 930 inmates to break even, the senator recalls.
Sens. Huggins and Gordon worried that the companies might pull out of the prisons, and neither man thought the state could run them more efficiently than the companies. In the future, Mississippi might need the extra beds.
By March 24, a Saturday, Mr. Calabrese had left, but Mr. Sage was planted on the second floor of the statehouse. A conference committee of three representatives and three senators had convened to set the corrections budget and deal with the empty beds, which now numbered 2,600. Four of the six lawmakers had prisons in their districts.
The conferees sat around a U-shaped group of tables in a high-ceilinged room hung with portraits of former appropriations chairmen, participants say. Cigar and cigarette smoke floated in the air. Mr. Johnson shuttled in and out to answer questions, while Mr. Weissinger, the regional prisons' attorney, waited with Mr. Sage outside.
The conferees spent most of the weekend debating whether to solve the empty-bed problem by closing part of the state's massive century-old penitentiary at Parchman in northwest Mississippi. Rep. Coleman of Bolivar argued against the idea. Some of her constituents work at Parchman, which is near her district. She opposes companies being in the incarceration business in the first place, dealing with "human bodies as commodities," as she puts it.
Sen. Huggins endorsed closing part of Parchman. "Jack [Gordon] and I went out to dinner with the private prisons, and they're hurting," he recalls telling the lawmakers. Wackenhut and CCA had bailed the state out of a tough spot in 1994 by helping get two new prisons up and running quickly, and they deserved help, he said.
"I haven't had the privilege of going to dinner," Rep. Coleman remembers firing back, "but I don't think we should close the [Parchman] units." The debate got loud at times, but finally, the conferees agreed to leave Parchman intact for now.
They turned to the county-owned regional prisons. The legislators were inclined to boost these prisons' guaranteed minimum to 230 inmates -- an idea Mr. Johnson says he didn't like, because it meant moving $8-a-day prisoners from state facilities to $25-a-day regional prisons. The conferees accused him of wanting to keep state prisons full, so their budget would look justified, participants recall. Guilty, he said.
The committee emerged with a bill around noon on Monday, March 26, but its language was ambiguous. The measure seemed to set a 230-inmate minimum for the regional prisons, as well as what looked like a 900-inmate minimum for the Wackenhut and CCA prisons. The bill didn't, however, explicitly require Mr. Johnson to move any inmates. Rather, it directed his department merely to "make payments for housing" prisoners according to the stipulated minimums -- to pay the prisons whether they housed more inmates or not.