If you drive around Natchez, a sleepy river town of 16,045 people, and talk to folks, everybody has an opinion on whether Adams County Correction Center and its parent company, Corrections Corporation of America, have had a positive impact on the area.
Whatever people thought, it likely changed on Sunday, May 20, when a disturbance with a still-unknown cause prompted inmates to set parts of the prison on fire, take employees hostage and reportedly kill a young prison guard who happened to be working on his day off.
For inmates and employees, prisons are dangerous places, and stress comes with the territory. Human-rights activists who keep close tabs on America's prisons assert that those dangers are heightened at private prisons whose owners court local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to house prisoners.
Because the contract is usually worth a prescribed dollar amount, the prison company has to make its profits on the margins. The ACLU and other groups say the arrangement results in private prison firms cutting corners to boost income. When the companies trade their stock on Wall Street, which rewards them not just for generating profits but for growing profits quarter over quarter, there's even more temptation to keep expenses low. In most large organizations, employees represent the biggest line-item expense.
In a prison, cutting back on staff is a recipe for disaster. A small, overworked prison staff might be more inclined to take a hard line with inmates. Understaffing also means inmates won't have access to the privileges and services to which they are entitled. When one person has to oversee an entire housing unit, moving prisoners from their cells to the recreational yard or law library or infirmary becomes a logistical nightmare, fueling resentment and causing even a docile inmate to lash out at anyone in striking distance.
But the saddest thing is that the private-prison industry makes its money by exploiting a cycle of human desperation. They go into poor communities like Tutwiler and Natchez, which doesn't have much going for itself economically besides tourism, promising jobs. In the case of ACCC, which houses immigrants who re-entered the U.S. after being deported, the prison is filled with men who came to this country looking for a better life.
Surprisingly, Mississippi has quietly moved away from private prison companies the last few months. Last fall, the Department of Corrections let CCA break its contract to run the Delta Correctional Facility in Greenwood. After a settlement was reached in a lawsuit alleging sex abuse and other civil-rights abuses at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, its operator, The GEO Group, announced that it would pull it out of Mississippi. We are encouraged by this trend and hope other states will follow Mississippi's lead.