Mr. Johnson was outraged. By his arithmetic, his department would have to pay the private operators and the regionals for the equivalent of 600 inmates they weren't currently holding. The annual bill would come to about $6 million.
Later that afternoon, he huddled with aides before facing local reporters. "How do we get them to understand we'd be paying for something we don't have?" he recalls asking his staff. His communications director, Jennifer Griffin, suggested asking a friendly lawmaker to address reporters, using a phrase that had just popped into her head: "ghost inmates." Mr. Johnson thought for a moment. "No," he said, "I'll do that myself."
The full House and Senate approved the prison bill that afternoon. But Mr. Johnson stole the show. Newspaper headlines and newscasts endlessly repeated the line about ghost inmates.
On the defensive now, the legislative conferees told other lawmakers that they had intended for Mr. Johnson to move inmates to the private and regional prisons, not pay for ghosts. The actual language hadn't stirred any significant opposition in the end, the conferees said.
Sen. Huggins says he inserted the private-prison minimum into the bill, with Sen. Gordon's approval. "We don't guarantee them a profit, but I think we're obligated to get them enough prisoners to where they have a chance," Sen. Huggins now says. Both he and Sen. Gordon say they never intended to allocate money for empty beds.
Rep. Coleman says she didn't like guaranteeing inmates to the private prisons but had been too tired to fight anymore. The outcome was a compromise, she says.
Both Wackenhut and CCA say they never asked for and didn't want to be paid for empty beds. But Mr. Sage, the Wackenhut lobbyist, says that is exactly what he interpreted the bill as requiring.
Two days after the legislation passed, Gov. Musgrove vetoed it. In a press conference, the usually cool-headed governor trembled with anger as he, too, railed against ghost inmates. He accused lawmakers of helping prisons while "taking money away from children and teachers."
Just after the governor spoke, Attorney General Moore took the podium. Flanked by Sens. Huggins and Gordon, Mr. Moore said the only sensible and proper way to interpret the legislative guarantees was to require the corrections department to move inmates. There would be no payments for ghosts. Thus assured, the House and Senate overrode the governor's prison-bill veto.
Not Over Yet
The prison free-for-all wasn't over yet, however. On June 4, Mr. Johnson sent a letter to 61 sheriffs around the state. To comply with the prison bill, he wrote, the corrections department might need to transfer hundreds of state inmates currently housed by local jails to regional and private facilities.