California Prisoners on Lockdown in Mississippi

Another reminder that the holiday season is not a global love-fest: this report from All of Us or None:

“I was contacted by a number of family members whose loved ones are incarcerated in Tutwiler, Mississippi.  They informed me that there has been a race riot in Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, where some California prisoners are housed.  Days ago the Jail exploded in violence.  This is one of those private prisons where the primary purpose is to save this state money and to secure a profit for a private prison corporation. Prisoners’ safety and rehabilitation comes second to pursuit of the almighty dollar.  I have been informed that it took over two hours to regain control of the environment and to end the misplaced violence, but the frustration remains extremely high during this current lock down.”

The free world can be puzzled by former prisoners who are emotionally conflicted when holidays come along.  What they need to understand is that holidays in prison are typically spent on lockdown.  Tempers get shorter.  Depressions grow deeper.  While prisons cut back on staff and pay triple-time to the guards who show up.  Some prisons let people out for a 10 minute phone call, and that is the limit of getting out of one’s cell; and if nobody to call, it is all day in the cage.  California is widely known for separating prisoners based on race.  Arguments can be made for both integration and segregation, but what approach does CCA take to race relations?  Most prisons stoke that fire, even if only in a subtle manner, as guards come to work with their own prejudices and occasional need for reality television excitement.

Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility sounds like a public prison incarcerating the locals, yet it is not.  It is owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), widely known to investors on Wall Street as CXW, and currently trading at $21 per share.  They make money by contracting with state and federal agencies to transfer their prisoners.  Profit is made by the difference between the rental price of a cell, and how much they spend to keep the prisoner alive.  Tallahatchie has 2800 cages and two primary “customer bases”: the local county and the state of California (who send 2500 prisoners).  They collect about $65 per day per prisoner from the taxpayers of California; who also pay for transportation costs.

Oakland, CA is 2,170 miles from the prison.  Any family member seeking to visit a loved one would likely need to fly in to Memphis, then rent a car for the two hour drive to Tallahatchie.  The separation of families by prisoner-peddling carries stark consequences.  Family reunification, and staying in touch throughout a prison term, is widely touted as the number one path for successful reintegration.  California is under court order to reduce its prisoner population, as they have long-since reached an overcrowded level of inhumane conditions.  Renting space elsewhere, although costly, is their answer.  They have over 10,000 prisoners currently out of state… and climbing.

The need for out-of-state transfers, to relieve overcrowding, began in 2007.  According to the CA Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) it was supposed to be temporary until other reforms were created.  In 2009, the CDCR expanded their contract with CCA to 10,000 out of state cells- a response to the federal ruling, later approved by the US Supreme Court, declaring CDCR is implementing cruel and unusual punishment with their prison conditions.  Clearly the policy of buying more prison space was a shortsighted and failed policy.  CCA, meanwhile, is excited by this business and pleased that California is expected to send prisoners into their Colorado and Minnesota prisons (the latter is currently vacant).  The 2008 agreement capped payments to CCA at $632 million until 2011.  With those dollars spent, CDCR keeps on doling it out.

GEO is expecting $60 million per year from their much smaller contract with California.

According to MS Department of Corrections, the California prisoners in Tallahatchie are Medium and minimum security- meaning that they will be coming home soon and needing to develop a plan for release… from 2000 miles away.  But like most corporate-owned prisons, detailed data can be difficult to track down.  Their own site says it is Maximum Security.  It can be tough to figure out who, in this shell game of prisons, is being housed and where.

Mississippi, doing their part, has paid Wall Street for over 5000 cages, operated by CCA and GEO.  This includes the infamous Walnut Grove children’s prison, with 1500 cells, and subject of a scathing NPR report.  The rates are $42 per day.  The private prisons seek to fill their extra “beds” with prisoners from around the country.

As the report from Dorsey Nunn in California continues: “I am writing to ask you to call the heads of this corporate prison (Bobby Phillips or Kenneth Little) and let them know that every human being has the right to safety. You can contact them at (662) 345-6567.

 I am also asking you to call Matthew Cates, the head of the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation and let him know that he is still responsible for the California prisoners housed outside of the state. Ask him what he has in place to insure the safety of prisoners being housed out of state. You can contact him at (916) 323-6001.

Dorsey Nunn is the Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and a founding member of All of Us or None.  He organizes the formerly incarcerated, and their families, on a national level.

About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on
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