Indictment of Ex-Official Raises Questions on Mississippi’s Private Prisons

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. — In 1982, Christopher B. Epps, a young schoolteacher, took a second job as a guard at the facility known as Parchman Farm, the only prison operated at the time by the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

Eventually he had to choose a path. “It worked out that I was making more as a correctional officer than as a teacher,” Mr. Epps would later recall in an interview for a corrections newsletter.

By the time he spoke those words in 2009, Mr. Epps was being feted as Mississippi’s longest-serving corrections commissioner. The state inmate population had quadrupled, five private prisons had been built to help house them, and, according to a federal grand jury indictment, Mr. Epps had found a new, secretive way to bolster his income.

The 49-count indictment, unsealed last week, accuses Mr. Epps of receiving more than $1 million in bribes from a former Mississippi lawmaker named Cecil McCrory, beginning in 2007. In exchange, the indictment charges, Mr. Epps helped secure lucrative corrections department contracts for private prison companies owned or represented by Mr. McCrory.

The indictment and its aftermath have raised questions here that go beyond how Mr. Epps managed, on his public servant’s salary, to accumulate a home in a wealthy gated suburb, as well as a beach condominium, high-end Mercedes and the gold Rolex he wore to court on Nov. 6, when he entered a not-guilty plea. Some of the questions are focusing on the state’s dealings with the private sector, which houses one in five inmates in the state — a system for which Mr. McCrory was an early advocate.

Mississippi has long struggled to fix its notoriously troubled prison system. In 2012, a federal judge called the conditions at one privately run facility “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions.”

Now the state is facing the possibility of a widening corruption scandal, a top-to-bottom reassessment of its prison-contracting system, and the removal of the powerful Mr. Epps from the political equation amid the rollout of an ambitious alternative-sentencing law that he helped devise.

“You feel this hopeless despair,” said Jody Owens, a Jackson-based attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has sued Mr. Epps over prison conditions.

Soon after the indictment was unsealed, Gov. Phil Bryant promised that the state would open all of the contracts mentioned in the indictment to new bidding, and review all other prison contracts to ensure that they were legally procured.

In a court filing in late October, a federal magistrate judge indicated that the criminal investigation was ongoing. Prosecutors in a previous filing said that they were targeting not only Mr. Epps and Mr. McCrory and their alleged crimes, but “others associated with those schemes and crimes” as well.

“We’re all wondering how far it’s going to go and who all’s going to be involved,” said State Senator Russell Jolly, a Democrat. “We don’t know.”

Until resigning from his post the day before his arraignment, Mr. Epps had artfully walked a fine line, serving under a Democratic governor and then two Republican ones.

As an African-American who had risen through the ranks, Mr. Epps was, to many, a cliché-busting example of the promise of post-segregation Mississippi. Lawmakers were charmed by his bear-hugging bonhomie and wowed by his ability to rattle off precise statistics from memory.

But to inmate advocates, he was a more complicated character. Margaret Winter, the associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said that Mr. Epps deserves credit for dismantling an infamous solitary confinement unit at Parchman, formally known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Violence plummeted, and Mr. Epps won national acclaim.

Back at home, State Senator Willie Simmons, a Democrat, said that Mr. Epps also worked with him on trying to scale back tough-on-crime sentencing laws that had been fueling the state’s explosive inmate population growth. In 2008, the two men were successful in excluding some nonviolent offenders from a law that had required felons to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

But Ms. Winter and her allies continued to sue. In 2010, the A.C.L.U. and S.P.L.C. filed a federal complaint targeting the shabby treatment of juveniles at the privately run Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, eventually entering into a consent decree.

A second pending lawsuit targets the privately run East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a prison for mentally ill inmates, where lawyers and experts have reported feces-smeared walls, corrupt guards, frequent violence and substandard medical care.

Mr. Epps had inherited the private prisons when he became commissioner in August 2002, the legacy of 1990s-era lawmakers who saw them as a cost-effective solution to an overcrowding crisis. Mr. McCrory, a former sheriff’s deputy, had sponsored a 1993 privatization bill. It died in the state legislature, but the idea gathered steam, and Mississippi opened a private prison in 1996.

By 2013, the system had four private prisons and the nation’s second-highest incarceration rate. Projected inmate population growth was expected to cost the state $266 million over the next 10 years. As in other states, the conservative Republicans who dominate state government here began to explore the cost-saving potential of sentencing reform.

Mr. Epps was chosen to lead a task force on the topic. The group eventually devised a sweeping plan that, among other things, gave some nonviolent offenders new alternatives to prison. It became law in 2014. Mr. Epps called it “landmark” legislation that would “control corrections costs without jeopardizing public safety one bit.”

By that point, the indictment charges, he had been taking bribes from Mr. McCrory for at least seven years. Mr. McCrory is accused of making five- and six-figure deposits to bank accounts to pay off mortgages on Mr. Epps’s properties.

Mr. Epps, the document says, took an additional $900,000 in cash, stashing some of it in his home safe and then depositing it in various accounts, or buying cashier’s checks, in amounts of less than $10,000 to avoid federal reporting requirements.

Among Mr. McCrory’s clients was Management and Training Corporation, or MTC, a Utah-based company that was hired to run three of the private prisons in 2012, and a fourth in 2013.

According to the indictment, it was Mr. Epps who persuaded MTC to hire Mr. McCrory as a consultant, and personally negotiated the $12,000 fee, which he later split with Mr. McCrory.

An MTC spokesman said in a statement that Mr. Epps merely “recommended” that the company work with Mr. McCrory, adding that the company, at the time, was “not aware of any alleged inappropriate relationships between Mr. Epps and Mr. McCrory.”

He added that the company had worked closely with Mr. Epps to make changes at the prisons “that would improve security and the treatment of offenders.”

Mr. McCrory, who was also named in the indictment, has also pleaded not guilty to the charges. MTC has canceled his consulting contract.

An attorney for Mr. McCrory could not be reached. Mr. Epps declined to comment.

To Ms. Winter, the allegations, while disturbing, are a sideshow to the more troubling issues afflicting the system. State officials, she argues, are inadequately monitoring private prison contractors, while systemwide, “they adamantly refuse to allocate enough money to food, clothe and shelter inmates.”

The focus on Mr. Epps may prompt at least one more corrections reform. The state auditor, Stacey Pickering, is concerned that Mr. Epps, if convicted, might still receive his state retirement.

Mr. Pickering plans to ask legislators to craft a law prohibiting such payments.

A version of this article appears in print on November 17, 2014, on page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: Indictment of Ex-Official Raises Questions on Mississippi’s Private Prisons

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