Lawmakers try to change decision on work centers
by Rory Doyle
Jun 08, 2013 | 2115 views | 0 0 comments | 36 36 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As the July 15 deadline set by Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps quickly approaches, the decision to close Rosedale's Community Work Center still appears to be final.

Local representatives, at both the municipal and legislative levels, have been lobbying hard to reverse the decision.

"I wish I had better news," said Sen. Willie Simmons, who has met multiple times with the commissioner. "I haven't been able to get him or the governor to change their mind about it."

Epps announced in April that he would be closing four of the MDOC's 17 community work centers across the state.

The centers typically house between 75-100 inmates, booked on lighter offenses, who work at county facilities and assist city public work departments by cutting grass, picking up trash, performing janitorial work and helping at local schools.

"A budget shortfall and fewer non-violent inmates eligible to be housed at community work centers are the reasons for the decision," said Epps in a press release. "Closing these four facilities will save taxpayers about $2.3 million."

Local leaders are more concerned about the impact the closure will have on Bolivar County.

"Really, this has become a local fight against the state," said Simmons. "I have not found any local officials who think this is the proper thing to do."

Simmons was one of the founding committee members more than 20 years ago who traveled the state to convince communities of the program's municipal benefits.

"On a personal level, I'm feeling more of a loss than most right now," he said. "These programs have proven to be safe and help communities. They are not closing because they are a failure — they are a success story.

"It's painful to see it go."

Rep. Tommy Taylor has also been meeting with leaders in Jackson in hopes of reversing Epps's decision.

"We're really trying to get this overturned," said Taylor. "Unfortunately we can't tell the commissioner or governor what to do, but we're trying to convince them that we need these workers.

"Personally, I think it could be worked out. People in the Delta are very concerned."

Bolivar County Board of Supervisors President Andrew Williams said the move would be a big blow locally, as the workers help with jobs that municipalities wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.

"The labor they provide probably saves the county about $2.5 million in wages," Williams said in a previous Bolivar Commercial story. "They do the labor and the jobs that nobody has the budget to pay for.

"We're talking about some of them who are really skilled workers."

Simmons explained his frustration with some of Bryant's rulings related to state corrections.

"The governor from day one has taken difficult positions on corrections," said Simmons. "His shift in policy will have a harmful long-term impact on us.

"I think its bad policy to shut down programs like the Community Work Centers — it doesn't send a good message.

"The question now is what becomes of the labor not in the budget for each community."

Simmons said the labor is also beneficial to the offenders, who despite their sentences, are preforming and practicing meaningful skilled work.

Cleveland Public Works Director Ray Bell said at last week’s city board meeting that inmates from the work center are dwindling as they are released from their sentences or moved.

He said he might be able to a few eligible inmates from the regional correctional facility but loss of the inmates will cost the city a great deal of money.

MDOC will also close Yazoo County Community Work Center in Yazoo City, Jefferson County Community Work Center in Fayette and George County Community Work Center in Lucedale.