Sunday, 11 September 2011

State prison canteen contract needs more oversight
Written by
Charlie Mitchell
Contributing columnist

Many are serving time in Mississippi prisons and jails for ripping other people off. Now they know how it feels.
A package of Ramen soup mix costs 18 cents at Walmart in Greenwood. The same package costs 54 cents at the canteen up the road at the Mississippi State Prison at Parchman.
A lot of people are comfortable with overcharging prisoners for "comfort items." Some consider it part of their punishment.
But that ignores a couple of considerations.
First, it's the families - not the inmates themselves - who have to comeup with the cash to deposit into canteen accounts. If the family doesn't ante up, the prisoners don't just do without candy bars. Canteens also sell personal hygiene items and products most of us consider essential.
Second - and made clear in a study commissioned by the Legislature - is that this is not nickel and dime stuff.
Mississippi has 21,000 people behind bars. If they were all in one place, they'd form approximately the 15th-largest city in the state.
If each spent $10 a week on "extras" at canteens, the cash flow would be about $11 million per year.
There's little chance of finding where all the money goes because, as the state Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review learned, the financial waters are murky.
PEER Report 551, issued in June and available to anyone with Internet access, explains that the Mississippi Department of Corrections, without taking bids, "privatized" commissary services four years ago.
The full-service vendor is Keefe Commissary, LLC, a 46-year-old company that is a story unto itself.
Keefe is the Walmart for folks behind bars across America.
The company is a corrections administrator's dream come true. Keefe not only screens products appropriate to sell in prisons (can't be formed into weapons or processed into narcotics), but also has specially designed software to track purchases and credit or debit inmate accounts. They do it all. Prison administrators get a sales report and a check.
PEER says it was apparently legal for MDOC to enter the exclusive deal without a bid process because it was an expansion of an existing business deal. PEER does recommend opening the process to other bidders. In his written response to the PEER study, MDOC Commissioner Christopher Epps agrees ... in a way.
Specifically, Epps says he wouldn't be opposed to taking competitive proposals so long as proposals were only allowed from companies with the same size, stature and experience as Keefe. (There don't appear to be any.)
Pricing is another area.
The PEER report pulls no punches: "MDOC cannot assure that Keefe charges inmates and their families reasonable prices for commissary items."
The actual contract calls for Keefe to use "the average of convenience store prices" and gives Epps veto authority over increases, but PEER said none of this is documented, meaning there simply are no checks. Keefe can charge its shoppers, who, of course, can't go down the street for a better price, whatever it wants.
In Florida and other states, Keefe's contract and price lists are published.
Where the money goes is a final topic. The contractual split at public prisons in Mississippi is 29.4 percent on gross sales for MDOC. The remaining 70.6 percent is to go to Keefe, which includes the cost of goods sold. But an actual PEER accounting for three years, shows that out of $24 million in sales, MDOC got a mere $3 million which, by statute, went to the MDOC-managed Inmate Welfare Fund.
And MDOC says the fund is audited and "clean," but PEER questions some spending, including funds for vehicles.
The burdens inmates and their families face is not a cause of much concern. No lawmaker campaigns on "fairness for prisoners."
Yet constitutional theory, at least, holds that society is to bear the cost of incarceration and that is improper to seize the assets of criminals if not related to their crimes. Clearly, the state's contract with Keefe dances close to a line.
Sometimes PEER studies that detect waste, inefficiency or lack of accountability result in reforms. Sometimes they don't.
It would speak well of the Legislature if it made changes requiring Keefe to be at least as accountable here as in other states where the company has the franchise.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail

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