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Mississippi prisons ‘a hotbed of corrupt officials’; FBI investigation underway

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Story by Jerry Mitchell, Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

A federal investigation into allegations of corruption at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility has led to the removal of 10 employees.

On Tuesday, Sept. 15, Mississippi Department of Corrections officials charged Carl Arnold, head of the prison’s K-9 Unit, with embezzlement. Officials suspended Arnold without pay.

Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, located in Rankin County, has removed 10 employees from the prison in the wake of an FBI investigation. (Photo courtesy InmateAID)

“We are working with all law enforcement agencies to clean up the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” Commissioner Burl Cain said in a statement released Friday, Sept. 18. “We are the ones who are supposed to be protecting society from the criminals, not be the criminals. So we will not tolerate bad behavior of any kind. Inmates, correctional officers and the public deserve that.”

The state Personnel Board confirmed Friday that Warden Wendell Banks and Dean Epps, chief of security and the second in command at the Rankin County prison, are no longer employed.

Cain said he cannot discuss why the chief of security and a warden were terminated, nor can he give reasons for suspending without pay a director and an associate warden. A sixth employee resigned effective immediately and can no longer come on prison grounds. The other four people, who are not state employees, have also been banned from the Rankin County prison.

It’s the second time the state Department of Corrections has been rocked by a federal corruption probe in a half-dozen years.

Two of those fired worked for Mississippi Prison Industries Corp. in Jackson. Bradley Lum, CEO of the nonprofit, confirmed they had been let go.

He said as soon as he learned of the FBI’s investigation, he told the agency the nonprofit would cooperate fully.

“Whatever needs to be cleaned up needs to be cleaned up,” he said. “Our commissioner (Cain) is laser focused on cleaning up the system.”

Ugly underbelly of corruption inside Mississippi’s prison system

In 2014, a federal indictment accused then-Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps of pocketing $1.4 million in bribes and kickbacks to steer more than $800 million in state prison contracts. A year later, he pleaded guilty to bribery and filing a false income tax return and was later sentenced to nearly 20 years in federal prison.

The indictment exposed the ugly underbelly of corruption inside Mississippi’s prison system. A task force examined prison contracts, and reforms supposedly followed.

But the corruption never went away. In fact, some of those in charge of operating Mississippi’s prisons have admitted the gangs are the ones running them.

The Magnolia State remains decades behind progressive correctional practices with its “denial of any inmate rights and property, which leads to violence, extortion and proliferation of gang control,” said Matthew Naidow, who worked as chief of security and other positions in corrections in prisons in Michigan, California, Vermont and Mississippi.

Mississippi’s prisons are woefully underfunded, he said. In addition to the millions the state Legislature whacked from the MDOC budget, starting annual pay for correctional officers is $25,650 — the lowest in the nation, qualifying them and their families for food stamps.

That low pay, Naidow said, makes it easy for inmates to bribe staffers to smuggle in “contraband, money and become involved in larger schemes of corruption instituted by gangs who are supported inside and outside the prisons.”

Overall, he said, “Mississippi is a hotbed of corrupt officials, from top to bottom, who are hurting the lives of the real hardworking staff that work in those prisons from hell every day to support their families.”

Prison’s print shop reportedly became center for smuggling

This photo shows a steak and shrimp meal delivered to inmates at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. (Photo source MCIR)

With regard to the current investigation, an informant who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting that the prison’s print shop was being used to smuggle in contraband. “Walking it in through the front door,” he said.

Marijuana, meth, tobacco, Xanax and Everclear alcohol came into the prison by way of the print shop, sometimes in 50-gallon drums, he said.

Following the lead of other states, Mississippi prisons banned smoking, leading to a huge illicit market behind bars. A pound of tobacco that might cost $15 on the street can fetch up to $500 behind bars.

Inmates are making their purchases through a cash app on their cellphones, the informant said. “There was so much money that pumped through there.”

The prison has been so wide-open to contraband — “like a sieve” — that inmates could even order a steak if they liked, he said.

One photo obtained by MCIR shows a long line of bags of takeout food, purportedly taken inside the print shop. Another photo shows a meal of steak and shrimp.

Experts say smartphone cash apps have made it easier than ever for inmates and officers to carry out corruption.

Nonprofit now focusing on inmates beyond bars

The prison’s print shop is run by Mississippi Prison Industries Corp.

In 1990, state lawmakers created the nonprofit to provide uniforms and socks to inmates, and the state has paid the nonprofit for that service.

But when the nonprofit began to lose millions, it shifted its focus from inmates to new product lines. In 2016, the nonprofit shut down its traditional housing program that had provided counseling, education, job training and substance abuse treatment for those leaving prison.

In 2018, the state Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee painted a picture of an out-of-control nonprofit, experiencing “a deterioration of its financial sustainability as the result of losses in long-term product lines, unsuccessful expansion into new product lines, and failure to control administrative overhead expenses, such as salaries and benefits, contractual services, and operating expenses.”

Since Lum took over last year, the nonprofit has begun to turn things around, producing PPE for those responding to emergencies and making uniforms for inmates, said PEER’s Executive Director James Barber. “They really are getting back to what the law said they were supposed to do.”

That law called on the nonprofit to provide work experience and skills that can help lead to the jobs after inmates are freed.

The nonprofit now has a department to ensure that those leaving prison have the skills to make the transition into the real world and is launching HOPE (Helping Offenders Prepare for Excellence) Alliance.

Lum said his dream is for the nonprofit to become the “superhighway for reentry” for those who are transitioning from prison back to society.

“Let’s not act like a $35 bus ticket is enough,” he said. “We’re not preparing these guys.”

The 600 inmates now working for the nonprofit get a head start on returning to society through savings accounts, he said. “That way, when they get out, they have money. It’s not just a few dollars, but real dollars they can use on housing, electric bills and other things they need.”

Cain promises to clean up prisons

MDOC officials say Arnold, who had worked for the Corrections Department since 1995, is charged with taking state-owned copper and stainless steel and selling the items to a private business for personal profit for almost a year.

Cain said he remains dedicated to cleaning up Mississippi’s correctional system.

“We continue to actively work with other state and federal law enforcement agencies to ensure the integrity of the department and remain committed to being transparent and open to the people of Mississippi,” he said. “As our investigation continues in conjunction with other agencies, we will announce charges at the appropriate time.”

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