Cost of keeping someone behind bars is obscene

Which government operation is the big winner in a draft of next year’s budget?

Education?

Roads and highways?

Health care?

Nope.

The answer is prisons.

Gov. Phil Bryant proposes to allocate $362 million to the Mississippi Department of Corrections for the fiscal year starting July 1, plus another $14 million to supplement expenses for the rest of this year. That’s up from $339 million this year and up from $276 million just 10 years ago.

It’s obscene.

As a nation, the United States has a higher proportion of its citizenry behind bars than any other. Among the states, Mississippi’s proportion is second only to Louisiana’s.

So, are there just hundreds of people behind bars who shouldn’t be? Not likely. Most wearing those orange jumpsuits earned them.

So, what’s driving this?

Nobody seems to know. More than two years ago, Time magazine quoted Chris Epps, MDOC commissioner, as saying the state simply had to reinvent how it deals with offenders.

“We’ve got all these needs,” Epps said of the budget overall, “and we’re spending all this money on corrections. We’ve got to decide who we’re mad with, and who we’re afraid of.”

Part of the problem may be what the Rev. Jesse Jackson 20 years ago dubbed the nation’s new “prison-industrial complex.” The term recalls President Eisenhower’s warning, in the years after World War II, against creating a military-industrial complex — a network of contractors whose appetite knew no bounds and whose bank accounts had to be fed.

When Mississippians think of “prison,” we think of the Parchman State Peniteniary, once the “flagship.” But Parchman has been joined by two additional state prisons, 15 regional prisons, four private prisons and a multitude of work centers, restitution centers and county jails approved for housing state inmates. Employment at just the three big prisons is more than 2,000 people.

Charlie Mitchell
12/03