June 7, 2014 11:02:44 PM
JACKSON -- Mississippi's prison system has turned to a contractor to expand services for people released from prisons, after the town of Walnut Grove blocked the state's attempt to open its own transition center.
New Way Mississippi, which provides 45 beds in transition centers in Jackson and McComb, is the only respondent to a request to provide 100 more beds to the state Corrections Department. The state now pays New Way $20 per inmate per day.
The state also runs a 70-bed center at Mississippi Prison Industries Corp. The halfway houses give newly released inmates a place to live, help finding a job, and other services aimed to reduce the chance they'll commit a new offense.
"The objective is to cut the recidivism rate by breaking some of the barriers they face," said Larry Perry, New Way's CEO.
A law passed this year by the Legislature that takes effect July 1 aims to cut how much Mississippi spends on prisons. Among other changes to how prisoners are sentenced and paroled, it calls for the 100 additional beds so the state Parole Board can have a place to parole inmates who are otherwise eligible but have no place to live.
"We were hoping to get it done in time for the law to take effect," said Corrections spokeswoman Grace Fisher.
The Corrections Department had sought to open centers in two metal buildings that it acquired earlier this year in Walnut Grove.
The structures housed a privately run facility, American Transition Services, from 2007 to 2011. The center closed after widespread complaints over the behavior of its residents.
Grady Sims, longtime mayor of Walnut Grove, became the transition center warden in 2009. Prosecutors said he drove a female inmate to a hotel to have sex in November 2009, and was secretly recorded a later in telephone conversations telling the inmate to lie to investigators.
Sims was indicted in October 2011, accused of sexually assaulting the prisoner while acting in his official capacity and intimidating a witness. The assault charge was dismissed when he pleaded guilty to witness intimidation. He was forced to resign as mayor and barred from seeking office again.
Combined with a scandal involving abuse of youth inmates at the separate privately-run Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, prisons gave the Leake County town a black eye. After discovering the state was trying to reopen the transition units, aldermen in May extended a moratorium on granting building permits to certain kinds of developments, including correctional facilities.
Fisher said the state now plans to sell the buildings, which could house 210 men and 100 women.
The agency sent out a request for proposals for transition centers, and Fisher said New Way was the only group that answered. Perry said his nonprofit group is looking at other areas, including Greenville, to set up more transition centers in different parts of the state, closer to where inmates come from.
"These guys are no longer prisoners," Perry said. "They are ex-offenders and we don't treat them like prisoners."
If residents find jobs, they're required to pay New Way up to $115 a week.
Perry said the Corrections Department tracked New Way clients for three years and found only 31 percent had their parole or probation revoked, better than the national average of roughly half.
"I would rather have a guy being accounted for and getting the services they need," he said. "We know where all of our clients are every night."
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