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Walnut Grove mayor: Prison closure could cripple town

The mayor of Walnut Grove says the state’s closure of a private prison could be crippling for his town.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections announced Friday that it would close the privately run Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in September and transfer its 900 inmates to state-run facilities. Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher. The prison is the town’s largest employer.

Walnut Grove Mayor Brian Gomillion told The Clarion-Ledger on Monday that he would like to talk with state leaders about using Walnut Grove as a state-run facility, or even potentially contracting to house inmates from other states.

For a town with fewer than 500 residents, Gomillion said losing 215 jobs is crippling. He said the city receives about $180,000 a year in taxes from the prison.

The city’s non-prison property collections are only about $40,000 a year. The mayor said the prison is Walnut Grove’s largest utility customer and the town had just finished paying off loans it had to take to expand water, sewerage and other utilities. He said the town will still have to maintain those utilities, but with the loss of about 60 percent of its utility revenue.

“Our sales tax is $70,000 to $80,000 a year,” Gomillion said. “Taking 200 people out of our economy — people who would buy lunch, buy things at the Dollar General, buy fuel — is going to make sales taxes go down, too.”

The mayor said people in town who work at the prison have cried as they’ve talked to him.

“When the state was looking for a place to put a prison and nobody wanted it, this town opened its door — although a lot of people, myself included, didn’t want it at the time,” Gomillion said. “Now, nearly 17 years later, they decide to close it and don’t even bother to tell us. They can’t even give us a 15 minutes heads up before it hits the news.”

A spokesman for Gov. Phil Bryant directed questions about city officials not being contacted about the closure to MDOC.

MDOC issued a statement: “Our primary focus is public safety. We’ve had to make a number of difficult decisions. Those decisions are made based on what is in the best interest of the state of Mississippi and the Department of Corrections within our budget.”

The Walnut Grove Correctional Facility is operated by Management and Training Corp. with the state paying $14.6 million a year. The 1,260-bed prison has been under federal oversight since 2012, settlement of a 2010 lawsuit over conditions at the facility. Fisher and Gomillion said conditions have improved since MTC — which operates three other private prisons in Mississippi — took over. Gomillion, who has been mayor since 2012, said MTC has been a good and philanthropic corporate citizen in Walnut Grove, and its leaving will be another loss to the community.

State taxpayers are still footing the bill for $195 million in debt for building four private prisons, including the one in Walnut Grove. Gomillion said parts of the prison are less than 10 years old.

“Make this a state facility instead of putting money into the 100-year-old Parchman (state prison),” Gomillion said. “That would make more sense, and that would be less of a killer to our town.”

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