PASCAGOULA – The recent privatization of the Jackson County Youth Detention Center is the first time in the state that operating a juvenile detention center has been turned over to a private company.
Jackson County Youth Court Judge Kim Starks made the decision to turn over operations of the detention facility to the company Mississippi Security Police (MSP). Starks had solicited proposed budgets from MSP, a private security company in business for one year, and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department. MSP’s budget to manage the juvenile center for a year was $445,000 compared to the sheriff’s bid of $573,000.
Starks said she made the decision to turn over management of the youth detention center for two reasons. First, she was in a conflict of interest position serving as both judge and jailer, and believes that is unconstitutional. Second, she was having difficulty hiring personnel to work at the center.
“In April we were unable to hire qualified personnel for the detention center because we weren’t paying sufficient money to hire security workers away from casinos or elsewhere,” Starks said. “We had an emergency in April where we were were faced with shutting down the detention facility and transfer youths to Harrison or Forrest counties. Then I was presented with MSP as being a fill in. We hired them on a month-to-month basis to fill in the necessary manhours that were missing. They have done a terrific job, and have been very responsive to the court.”
Starks told the Jackson County Board of Supervisors that she would no longer be responsible for operating the juvenile detention center as of Oct. 1. She solicited budget proposals from MSP and the sheriff’s department. The lower budget proposal combined with her positive experience working with the private company led to her to choose MSP to operate the facility.
“My view on this is I don’t care who runs it as long as they are taking care of the children,” Starks said. “At this time I believe that having MSP operate the facility is in the best interests of our children. MSP is working very closely with the court, and are applying for grants to improve services at the center.”
Tony Gobar, juvenile programs manager for the Division of Public Safety Planning, said he doesn’t know the details of how the privatization will work out regarding facility maintenance, programming for kids, staffing, and administrative issues.
“Those are some of the issues the county and the private group should be concerned about,” Gobar said. “I can’t comment on the pros and cons of the project without knowing specifically what is being proposed for the facility. For the arrangement to be given any chance of success, these are some of the basic issues and concerns that should be worked out up front between the parties.”
Gobar said prison privatization continues to be a source of national debate. He isn’t prepared to say whether private or public prisons are better at this point.
“Our main concern is that kids who are placed in the facility receive proper care and appropriate services, to include education, medical, religious, social services and recreational opportunities,” Gobar said.
Dane Maxwell, vice president of MSP, said their goal is to be a model facility for the state.
“I think privatizing this facility was the right thing to do for the taxpayers,” Maxwell said. “But mainly I think it is the right thing to do for the juveniles in this county. For years parents who have had minors who are detained in that facility have had serious concerns for their safety. Parents are so concerned with the safety of their children that they have found it hard to sleep at night. I think we are professional, we are going to do the right thing and more than anything are going to make sure those kids have a safe environment. That is our main goal. The taxpayers will get a good quality service at a lower cost.”
There are four private prison operations in the state. The Marshall County Correctional Facility in Holly Springs is operated by Wackenhut Corp. The Delta Correctional Facility in Greenwood is operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Wilkinson County Correctional Center in Woodville is also operated by CCA. The East Mississippi Correctional Facility located outside Meridian in Lauderdale County is operated by Wackenhut Corp.
“Since the Department of Corrections first entered into contracts with private companies, we have not experienced any problems,” Jones said. “Certainly they have helped to ease some of the crowding that was experienced prior to the onset of the privatization program. The prison population in the state is continuing to grow. We have over 18,000 inmates in the system, over 800 of which are under house arrests, an alternative to incarceration. The privatization effort has complemented state’s effort to continue to build prison bed space for the growing prison population.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.