By Jack Elliott Jr./The Associated Press
JACKSON — Faith-based groups and advocates led by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union are asking Mississippi prison officials to drop plans to close four of the state’s 17 community work centers where inmates do chores for local governments.
The work centers give inmates a chance to learn skills that could help them once they’re released to the outside world, the groups said this week in a letter to Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps.
Epps said Thursday that closing the four centers will save the state about $2.3 million. He also said fewer inmates are eligible for the program.
In April, Epps announced he will close community work centers in Rosedale, Yazoo City, Fayette and Lucedale by July 15. Epps said inmates at the four centers will be transferred to 13 other work centers that will remain open.
Since the announcement, local community leaders have been lobbying to get Epps to reverse the decision.
“Opponents appear to be overlooking the fact that Mississippi Department of Corrections no longer has the right type of offender — one who is nonviolent and is mentally and physically able to work — to place in community work centers,” Epps said in a emailed statement to The Associated Press.
“I have personally chaired classification committees in an attempt to locate enough of these types of offenders to fill approximately 700 vacancies state-wide at Community Work Centers and Joint State County Work Programs for the last three years,” he said. “As a result, the cost to operate the community work center has increased, and is now close to operating a medium (sized) prison.”
In their letter, the 22 community groups and advocates said the community work centers are part of a program credited with helping Mississippi achieve one of the lowest rates of prisoners returning to the system in the country. They said the state’s recidivism rate has dropped over the past three years from more than 30 percent to 27.6 percent.
“We urge you to keep these centers open and find other, less harmful ways to cut spending. We must ensure that alternatives to incarceration, such as these work centers, are available in Mississippi,” the letter said. “Tough fiscal decisions must be made, but they must be based on common sense — not reactions that will increase recidivism and incarceration for minor, nonviolent offenses. We need fewer prison beds, not fewer work centers.”
Epps said the community work centers are not the only way in which MDOC seeks to address recidivism.
“Our multi-prong approach also includes educational, vocational and trade programs at our prisons. We also offer drug and alcohol treatment. Additionally, we have two transition centers in our re-entry program,” he said.
The groups and advocates suggested MDOC and the state Parole Board, which also was sent the letter, determine if prisoners sentenced for low-level violations or parole revocations can be released early.
They also proposed that first-time, low-level nonviolent offenders and technical parole violators do not serve prison time and the MDOC re-examine how inmates can shorten their sentences with good behavior.