Mississippi cuts its prison work program. Nothing makes sense anymore.


Nothing makes sense anymore. Mississippi’s Department of Corrections has decided that it is going to cut its prison work program, saying that it will save the agency the $3.2 million it costs to run it. But the state’s counties, on the receiving end of the program, say that the cut will cost them over $21 million in unplanned expenses, because they have depended on the program for so long.

These numbers, reported by the New York Times last night, reflect the disheartening disconnect between the budgetary concerns of local and state agencies. In pursuit of saving money for one agency, it will end up costing the rest of society more money. And all but forgotten in the decision-making process is how the prison work programs help inmates integrate back into society—the very essence of the word “corrections.”

The biggest irony of it all is that these decisions are being made in the name of you and me: the taxpayers. “One of my most significant duties is to be a good steward of taxpayers’ money,” wrote Marshall Fisher, the Mississippi DOC’s commissioner, in a letter explaining to local sheriffs the reason he is cutting the program.

The sheriffs’ responses: this is going to cost taxpayers more money, you fool.

Sheriff David Allison of Pearl River County, population about 55,000, told the Times that it would cost his county about $1.8 million to replace the work inmates do in the county with “traditional government workers,” who receive salary and benefits. “We don’t have it,” he said. “There’s no way to come up with that much without raising taxes, and no one wants to raise taxes.”

The sheriff has his point, but still, these two are only talking about the money a prison work program costs taxpayers on the front end of incarceration. Studies have shown that when inmates participate in work release programs, they make more money and stay employed for a longer time after they are released, thereby reducing recidivism rates and—you guessed it—saving taxpayers money in the long term.

Those charts above cover the first year after release, according to the 2008 study of work release programs by Brown University. The study found that these benefits carry on through at least the third year, which is as far as the study looked.

It’s worth noting that the “work release” programs cited in the charts above are a little different than the program that Mississippi is phasing out, which doesn’t have any comprehensive studies on effectiveness. Traditional work release programs place inmates at jobs with private companies; Mississippi’s puts them to work in things like public works and other positions that are generally run by local governments. But the effect—offering inmates a window into the outside world, and employment—is essentially the same.

Mississippi’s new plan, as outlined, would relocate the state’s working inmates from the county jails where they spend nights to existing state-owned “community work centers,” which commissioner Fisher noted are “not at full capacity with inmates” in his letter. Local sheriffs could still technically ask for their help, but those centers are too far from the counties where the inmates’ work is needed, reported the Times, “making it impractical for many local governments to use the prisoners.”

“I don’t know why we have such a litter problem in this county, but we do,” Sheriff Allison of Pearl River County told the Times. “If we lose [the work program], it won’t be a month, and this county is going to look as trashy as it can be.”

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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