Politically, it's a long story. When the smoke cleared from the riots, a prison spokesperson told Mississippi taxpayers that the 2,567-bed prison near Natchez houses adult male illegal immigrants who had come back into the U.S. after being deported.
In 1995, Mississippi lawmakers followed national trends in attempting to "get tough on crime." But in doing so, the lawmakers also dramatically increased the state's prison population and therefore the operating costs of the state prison system. The Legislature adopted the so-called "85 percent rule" which mandated that all state convicts must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before being eligible for parole. Mississippi's law was in sharp contrast to other states, where the 85 percent rule applied only to violent offenders.
The law had tremendous impact. On June 30, 1993, the Mississippi Department of Corrections had 9,629 prisoners with a capacity of 9,164. By the end of 1998, the figures jumped to 16,695 and 16,007, respectively.
From 1993 to 1998, MDOC data show that the Legislature procured 6,101 new prison beds and increased DOC's annual funding from $89 million to more than $200 million in FY99.
By 1999's election year, calls were widespread to relax the 85 percent rule. The law was eventually amended to make some first-time, nonviolent offenders eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentences.
By 2002, there were 2,600 empty state-owned prison beds while two private prisons were being guaranteed an inmate population sufficient to keep them profitable. In 2001, the Legislature voted near the end of the regular session to divert $6 million to pay for empty private prison bed space for so-called "ghost inmates."
Three companies in the private prison business - CCA, Wackenhut (later the GEO Group) and Cornell (later purchased by GEO Group) - spread campaign contributions around the Capitol and paid some of the state's top lobbyists to represent their interests. Republicans and Democrats alike got $6,400 in 1999, $29,100 in 2003, $27,950 in 2007, and $9,400 in 2011. There was more money in the "off" years.
Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove got $5,000 from folks in the business of building and operating private prisons in 2003. Former Gov. Haley Barbour got $14,000 in the 2007 election.
The rise and fall of the 85 percent rule is a follow- the-numbers game - even after steps were taken in 2008 to lessen the impact of the sentencing guidelines. In May of 2002, there were 21,751 state inmates with 2,829 in private prisons and 17,490 convicts on probation or parole. By May of 2012, there were 25,572 state inmates with 3,110 in private prisons and 35,242 convicts on probation or parole.
The more than two-fold increases in the number of parolee and probationers correlate closely with the greatly reduced influence - and deeply curtailed campaign contributions - the private prison industry wields at the state Capitol these days.
What will likely increase is the number of federal and out-of-state prisoners housed in Mississippi's private prison facilities.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or email@example.com.