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Community support vital to landing $50-million prison

MCCOMB — Who would choose to live near a prison? Plenty of people, if we’re talking about Pike County, which recently had considerable community support to attract a 1,500-bed, low-security federal prison that will create an estimated 320 permanent jobs.

There was no visible opposition to the $50-million prison in the community. There wasn’t a single letter to the editor opposing the facility, nor any negative comments in the two public hearings held on the issue. About 500 people wrote letters of support for the prison.

The community’s positive response to the prison development was an important factor.

“The Bureau of Prisons doesn’t want to be in a community where they aren’t wanted,” said George Killinger, director of operations for Cornell Companies, Houston, Texas, the private company that will build and operate the prison on an 80-acre site at the Pike County Industrial Park near Fernwood if final contracts are approved as expected.

Killinger said community support for the federal prison was a major factor in Pike County being selected over numerous other communities vying for the development. Nineteen sites were considered for the prison. A site in Georgia has also been recommended for a similar federal facility intended to house immigrant prisoners.

The prisoners intended for the facility are those being held on immigration charges either for being in the country illegally, or for having committed minor crimes such as drug offenses while in the U.S. legally. The average length of stay for the inmates will be 1.5 to two years with none incarcerated longer than five years.

Cornell Companies, a private correctional company with 70 facilities and a service capacity of 15,909 in 13 states and the District of Columbia, was attracted to Pike County because it met their infrastructure needs and has a good employment base.

“It is a stable community that is the right size to provide the community services needed,” Killinger said. “All around it was a great location with terrific community support both from the county and the cities of McComb and Magnolia. It is also close to major transportation links such as Interstate 10 and Interstate 55, and is only one and a half hours away from two major airports. The whole economic development of Pike County seems to be growing, and we are pleased to be part of that growth.”

J. Britt Herrin, executive director of the Pike County Economic Development District, said a contract for the prison is expected to be finalized soon. The project will have multiple economic benefits.

“On the surface it is going to mean 320 permanent new jobs,” Herrin said. “We know that those jobs will be fairly high paying for our area. These are federal contractors, so they have to pay prevailing wage rates according to the Department of Labor. The last we saw the entry level pay for a correctional officer was $10.70.”

The prevailing wage is higher than average in the area for high school graduates. Minimum requirements are for a high school education and a clean record.

In addition to correctional officers, about 30 correctional professionals will move in to the community creating an impact from home purchases. About half will be federal employees such as U.S. marshals charged with oversight related to the facility.

After the contract is let the facility is supposed to be built, open and ready for occupation within 365 days.

“It’s going to be fast track construction,” Herrin said. “They will probably start in November, which is not the ideal construction season in Mississippi. They are already in the process of bidding.”

A construction firm from Austin, Texas, Landmark, is the general contractor for the project. But Herrin said they won’t be bringing in construction workers themselves, but a manager to oversee the construction. The company will be contracting with local subcontractors to do most of the work.

Business and government leaders from Pike County have toured a similar federal prison facility in Yazoo City, and were favorably impressed.

“I really felt more like I was on a college campus than in a prison,” Herrin said. “I felt I could be standing in front of one of the community colleges in Mississippi. I didn’t feel threatened at all. The inmates are very orderly and respectful. I was very impressed with how it is operated, and how they try to improve the future and skills of the inmates. Everybody felt it was a very good facility, and something they would be happy to have in our community.”

Most of the staff at the Yazoo City facility weren’t guarding people, but helping them learn skills. The prison also has extensive physical fitness facilities.

Since the idea is to keep prisoners busy and out of trouble, some type of prison industry is expected. Also, jobs such as cleaning, cooking and doing laundry at the facility are expected to be handled by inmates.

There has been controversy nationally over the benefits and drawbacks of having prisons owned and operated by private companies. Opponents fear that it creates a political climate that encourages longer incarcerations. But from the standpoint of economic development, a private prison benefits the tax rolls whereas a government facility doesn’t.

“Probably the year it opens we will see a direct benefit to the tax base of the county in addition to employing a lot of people,” Herrin said. “And it is a facility that consumes a lot of services, most of which are available locally. They want to purchase those services locally when it makes good business sense to do so.”

The prison construction coincidentally comes at the same time of another major construction project in Pike County. Construction of a large new power plant is also expected to begin by the end of the year.

NRG Energy Inc. has selected the Shaw Group Inc. as general contractor to build an electrical power generating plant on the Bogue Chitto River in northeast Pike County. Up to 650 construction workers are expected at the peak in the summer of 2002.

“It is funny that both of these big projects will start about the same time,” Herrin said. “It is probably going to be fairly difficult to get a hotel here this time next year. I have talked to other communities that already had these power plants built, and they said it is like having hundreds of permanent visitors for years. I anticipate a lot of gas, hamburgers and beer will be sold over that time.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.


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