The county recently gained federal court approval for the center to house up to 14 joint state-county work program inmates and up to a dozen county jail trusties.
“This just doesn’t happen anymore,” said Ronald Welch, a Jackson attorney at the forefront of Mississippi prison and jail reforms for decades.
It doesn’t happen anymore because so many local work centers were built in the past decade that the state prison system didn’t have enough qualified inmates to fill them all, so the Mississippi Department of Corrections and Welch stopped approving more.
He termed Pontotoc County Sheriff Leo Mask’s strategy “clever and heroic” to find a way to gain new facility approval when no one else has lately.
“This was a home run,” Welch said about the facility.
In gaining the approval, Mask now can move the trusties to the new building next door to the county jail and free up space for more local prisoners. The jail’s maximum occupancy is 72 prisoners.
Mask said the new work center was built at very low cost by moving an existing county-owned building and primarily using inmate labor to finish it.
“Most of our state inmates are skilled at something,” he said. “Even if they hadn’t approved the new building, we still could have housed the 12 state-county inmates we had.”
At the heart of the statewide work center push was money, or income, for a county. The state pays an approved facility $20 per day to house a state inmate, which compares with about $40 per day for the state to house an inmate at one of its institutions.
Mask said that financial support amounts to nearly $190,000 a year additional revenue to Pontotoc County, plus about $480,000 a year in free labor, if the local governments had to pay for private work.
Public bodies, such as cities and boards of supervisors, can hire these inmates for free and put them to work on jobs the public would have to spend more for, if the hirings came from the outside world.
“This is a win-win for everybody,” Welch said.
• The state avoids overcrowding at its prisons.
• The county gets income and free laborers.
• The inmates often stay close to home, and earn merit-time off their sentences for working and for participation in education or drug/alcohol rehabilitation programs, or going to church.
For years, Lee County officials have talked about constructing a new facility with room for county-state inmates.
That’s not going to happen, Welch said.
“We’re telling everybody not to build” with that purpose in mind, he notes, “because there aren’t going to be enough inmates. Most of the existing facilities are half empty.”
Major Mississippi prison reform began in 1972 when state prisons, like the state penitentiary at Parchman, were ordered by a federal judge to solve overcrowding and other issues, such as discipline and corporal punishment.
In 1981, similar reforms came for local and county jails that house state prisoners.
These facilities must submit to state fire and health inspections twice a year, and stand for court-appointed approval every year.
Recently, Mississippi became only the 13th state with its prisons certified by the American Correctional Association.
Next, Welch said, will be pressing certification for local facilities, like in Chickasaw County, one of only three county jails passing ACA muster so far.
Certification will ensure that with changing administrations, new sheriffs know the status of their jails and how to run them.
As for Pontotoc County, Mask said he believes the ability to keep state prisoners closer to home is an incentive for them to get their lives back together.
“They’re getting a second chance by getting to stay here,” he said.