- Associated Press - Thursday, October 2, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - After Mississippi sought bids for a new contract to operate four privately run prisons and increase security staff there, only one company stepped up to challenge the prisons’ current operator.

The state Department of Corrections says just two companies met a Sept. 30 deadline for bids to run the prisons: current operator Management & Training Corp and New Jersey-based Community Education Centers.

Utah-based MTC was paid $59.3 million last year to run East Mississippi Correctional Facility, Marshall County Correctional Facility, Walnut Grove Correctional Facility and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility. The Corrections Department told lawmakers Tuesday that it would cost $60.8 million for the prisons’ operation in the budget year beginning July 1.

Commissioner Chris Epps sought new bids in August, saying he wanted more security staff. Mississippi is being sued over conditions at Walnut Grove and East Mississippi, including allegations the state isn’t doing enough to prevent inmate-on-inmate violence. Some prisoners rioted at Walnut Grove in December and July. A monitor for the plaintiffs has alleged Walnut Grove had too few guards that were too poorly trained to handle the most dangerous prisoners. The state has removed or reclassified those prisoners.

By law, privately run prisons must cost Mississippi less to operate than the ones the state runs directly. The state currently pays MTC $41.42 per inmate per day at East Mississippi and Wilkinson County, $32.11 per day at Walnut Grove and $29.22 per day at Marshall County, compared to the $42.12 it spends at its own prisons.

Corrections spokeswoman Grace Fisher said a committee will evaluate proposals and make a recommendation. She said Epps plans to award the contract by Tuesday, and it will begin Dec. 1.

“The commissioner has not, to my knowledge, ever rejected a recommendation,” Fisher said. “So essentially, the committee decides who gets the contracts.”

Bid documents say cost is supposed to account for 30 percent of the decision, with 25 percent apiece weighted for a company’s qualification and past performance. Finally, 10 percent is weighted to the personnel and equipment proposed to be used and 10 percent for the company’s plan to guard inmates.

Community Education Centers has historically provided housing and services for people leaving prison. But the company also runs eight local jails in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, with about 9,000 beds. The company declined to comment on its bid.

MTC began running the four Mississippi prisons in 2012. It didn’t immediately respond to Associated Press requests for comment on its bid. Spokeswoman Celeste McDonald said in a written statement that MTC wants to build on its record.

“We’ve built a strong partnership with the department over the last two years, and we’ve worked diligently to create a more secure environment for staff and offenders at all four facilities,” McDonald said.

The four prisons are owned by authorities in their communities, but the state pays for operations and maintenance. They collectively had 4,151 inmates in early August, according to bid documents.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy

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