- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi sheriffs, county officials and others said at a Wednesday news conference that a future without free inmate labor will be one of higher taxes, uncollected garbage, littered highways, unpainted government buildings and unrepaired patrol cars.

The news conference was part of an effort to pressure Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher to reverse his decision to close a program that sends some inmates to county jails. Local governments say they depend on free labor from inmates and could have to raise taxes to replace it.

Carthage Mayor Jimmy Wallace, also president of the Mississippi Municipal League, said his city estimates it would cost $235,000 a year to replace inmates who perform a variety of tasks, including reading water meters.

“That doesn’t sound like very much, $235,000, but for a small town like us it’s a lot,” Wallace said. “The state deals in millions of dollars. This would cost raising the taxes in Carthage, Mississippi, by 8.3 mills, which is a lot. Not a lot of people are going to get re-elected raising the mills 8.3.”

Overall, cities and counties claim it would cost them $22.9 million more to replace the services. They also say they’re worried about paying off debts on money counties borrowed to build special jail facilities for the inmates in the programs.

Fisher plans to close the programs Aug. 1, saying the move would save the state $3 million a year and ease his concerns about lax conditions in some county jails. The fewer than 1,000 inmates would be moved to community work centers, facilities run by the Department of Corrections where they perform similar work. Both the county facilities and the state work centers are about half-empty, as the number of inmates eligible for the program has declined faster than the state’s decreasing prison population.

Meeting with sheriffs Tuesday, Fisher offered to let inmates remain in the county facilities, on condition that the state no longer pays $20 a day per inmate to counties. Sheriffs say they can’t afford to shoulder those costs, in part because of the jail debts some counties must pay.

The Department of Corrections also has offered to allow counties to transport work crews from community work centers at county expense. Some work centers are distant from places with county programs, though, and sheriffs say transport could be impractical.

Some lawmakers have questioned whether Fisher can shut down the county programs without legislative approval. Fisher cites a 2003 attorney general’s opinion saying the state doesn’t have to house prisoners in county facilities when it has room in state institutions.

“Laying off my people or closing one of the state’s prisons, as was suggested during the meeting with sheriffs, is not a viable option,” Fisher said in a statement. “With the continued reduction of inmates in state prisons, we anticipate more significant changes in the future.”

Democratic candidate for governor Vicki Slater and candidate for lieutenant governor Tim Johnson appeared at the news conference to support the local officials, pointing out the volatility of the dispute in a year when the governor, lieutenant governor, all lawmakers, sheriffs and county supervisors face election.

Fisher also announced that the state has closed its own work center in Jefferson County, transferring most of the 43 inmates to a work center in Wilkinson County. Fisher said lack of staff had made the facility unsafe. The seven employees were transferred.

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

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