Epps discusses prison situation

Published 6:00 am Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris EppsWednesday painted a dim picture of the state’s prison situation andcalled for alternatives to decrease the Magnolia State’sincarceration rate.

Reciting a variety of statistics while speaking to theBrookhaven Kiwanis Club, Epps said Mississippi ranks fourth in thenation in the number of people locked up per 100,000 people. Hesaid Louisiana ranks first, with Oklahoma second, Texas third andSouth Carolina fifth.

“That’s not a good list to be on in my opinion,” said Epps, whorose in the ranks to commissioner after starting as a correctionsofficer in 1982.

As of Wednesday morning, Epps said there were 22,258 inmatesunder his supervision in the state. There were another 28,000 onparole, probation or house arrest.

Epps said the average age of a state inmate is 33 years. Indiscussing that fact, the commissioner recalled a phrase his motherused to say: “When you’re old enough to know better, you dobetter.”

“That doesn’t seem to be the case in Mississippi,” Eppssaid.

Epps also discussed a variety of expenses and costs associatedwith housing inmates and operating a prison system.

If lucky, the commissioner said, the state will have a $50million budget for inmate medical expenses. With food, fuel,utilities and other rising expenses, Epps predicted lawmakers earlynext year will need to make a deficit appropriation to supplementMDOC’s overall $327 million budget.

“We will not make it this year off that budget,” Epps said.

One factor in the cost is that the average inmate stay in astate prison is 8.7 years, Epps said. The national average, hesaid, is 57 months.

“When they stay longer, it costs more,” said Epps, who laterlisted state efforts to add several thousand beds to accommodate arising inmate population.

When looking at the prison situation, Epps said Mississippineeds to decide “who we’re mad with and who we’re afraid of.” Hepointed out that 68 percent of those in prison are for non-violentoffenses.

Epps went on to suggest the state may be better served with morecounties with Drug Courts, with more non-violent offenders onprobation or parole, with more use of house arrest and monitoringand with allowing seriously ill inmates to serve their sentences athome under house arrest.

Epps also touted a number of positive happenings regardingMDOC.

At around $45 per day (including debt service onconstruction-related bonds), Mississippi has the lowest per inmatecost per day in the nation. Also, he said Mississippi is turningout more inmates who have – while incarcerated – managed to obtaina GED or a vocational-technical skill.

On the supervision side, Epps touted state efforts to obtainaccreditation from national organizations.

Epps said state facilities are health care commission accreditedand all state prisons are nationally accredited. He said plans toobtain accreditation are moving from the prisons to parole officesand other MDOC facilities.

“We’re going to accredit everything that can be accredited atthe Department of Corrections,” Epps said.