Communities with closing centers scramble to fill void

Come July, four Mississippi communities will lose almost $18 million in free labor.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections announced in late April that it was closing four of its community work centers – in Yazoo City, Cleveland, Lucedale and Fayette – to cut costs.

Corrections commissioner Chris Epps said the closures would save his agency $2.3 million. The centers will officially cease operation July 15. Inmates will be transferred to other facilities. Employees will be offered positions elsewhere within the MDOC system. Each center includes a commander, a correctional supervisor, a case manager and a handful of officers.

A budget shortfall and fewer non-violent inmates who are eligible for housing in the work centers spurred the decision to close them, Epps said in a press release. MDOC will continue to operate 14 other work centers across the state.

“Tough times make you make tough decisions,” he said.

Times will be tough in the affected communities, too.

Yazoo City mayor McArthur Straughter said he and his board of aldermen are already discussing ways to pick up the slack the inmates will leave. Mostly, he said, they help with the city’s public works departments, doing street work and general maintenance.

Where they will be missed most, Straughter said, is in the city’s trash pick-up. Each of the city’s four garbage collection trucks have two inmates assigned to it. They will have to be replaced.

“And with our tight budget, some of the things they do will fall on our existing employees,” Straugher said. “We’re definitely going to have to tighten up. Even with our current budget situation, we’re going to have to hire at least a few more employees. We have no other option. We have to minimize the loss.”

About a dozen inmates total performed work for the city, Straughter said. Extrapolating that with total employee salary and benefits, and the loss will reach “into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The dollar figure is just huge, especially relative to our budget.”

MDOC’s decision blindsided Yazoo City, Straughter said. “We had absolutely no idea that this was coming down the pike. What our citizens will have to understand is it’s going to take a little longer for us to get around and pick up the trash. But we’ll make it work because we have no other choice.”

Cleveland mayor Billy Nowell said his city used about a dozen inmates per day, to help with any number of things. Two did general maintenance and clean-up at the police station; the rest performed public works functions.

“They really are excellent workers,” Nowell said. “They did a lot of things for us.”

Filling the void won’t be easy, he said. Some services will inevitably slow down because there isn’t room in Cleveland’s budget to hire enough employees to replace every lost inmate. “There’s no way we can do anything close to that,” Nowell said. “Our budget just won’t allow it.”

According to MDOC figures, inmate labor at the 18 work centers across Mississippi contributed $17.7 million in labor in fiscal year 2012, which ended last July and is the latest year for which data is available. Work was done for local, county, state and non-profit organizations.

“It’s going to be heard to close those gaps,” Nowell said. “But we’ll find a way because we have to. We can’t just shut down.”

 

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