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Wanted: Your State's Inmates

In a strapped rural town, the coming of 475 Hawaiian felons to its private prison is hailed as good news.

June 05, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

TUTWILER, Miss. — Once the heart of a thriving cotton economy, Tutwiler, population 1,364, had become an economic dead zone. The main street is a stretch of boarded-up windows and collapsed roofs, where signs warn against loitering and men loiter anyway. At the edge of town, fields of cotton and soybeans extend flat to the horizon.

And in Tutwiler's litany of disappointment, few sights were more discouraging than the brand-new prison, empty since 1,424 Alabama inmates left in March. A group of Wisconsin prisoners left early too, after they complained about being housed too far from their families. Finally, last month, came a piece of good news -- in the form of 475 felons from Hawaii.

Like so many rural communities across America, Tutwiler has become dependent on the prison business. Four years ago, when Corrections Corp. of America was looking to build a $35-million private prison, it could hardly have found a more accommodating community. Sister Maureen Delaney, a Roman Catholic nun who directs Tutwiler's Community Education Center, tried to spur debate about possible downsides -- like the dangers a prison could bring. But few in town wanted to discuss it.

The same was true in mid-May, as residents awaited the arrival of the most dangerous group of criminals to be housed here.

"An issue is not an issue unless people are willing to rise up and get upset about it," Delaney said. "When push comes to shove, people want the jobs."

Shortly after taking office last winter, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour changed Mississippi's law to allow the facility to accept maximum-security prisoners from other states. Tallahatchie County, where the Tutwiler correctional facility is located, is now among the nation's most flexible prison locations, warden Jack Cooke said.

Among the Hawaiian prisoners scheduled to be housed here are some who were involved in a series of riots in an Arizona prison between 1998 and 2001.

"I think it's common knowledge with these prisoners that wherever they go, there seems to be an uprising," said the Rev. William Wall, a Baptist minister whose wife works as a nurse at the facility.

A second group of prisoners from Colorado, rejected by Texas officials because of their violent histories, began arriving a few days after the first Hawaiians. Gradually, the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility lurched back to life. Job-seekers lined up outside its bright white walls, with double rows of chain-link fence topped by triple coils of razor wire.

When all 1,400 cells are full -- as the locals hope they will be -- there will be more prisoners here than citizens. When the contract with Hawaii was finalized, people rejoiced.

"The whole courtroom just went crazy," said Sykes Sturdivant, who serves on the Tallahatchie County Prison Authority. "All these employees were happy as a lark."

When the first busloads of Hawaiian prisoners arrived from Arizona, word spread quickly about the new inmates, a fastidiously neat group of men who remove their shoes before entering their cells.

A team of consultants and prison staff delivered "cultural orientation" to local hires, many of whom were uncertain whether the Hawaiian prisoners would speak English.

The imported inmates must be treated the same way they would be in Hawaii. So they are served a rice-based diet and can have televisions in their rooms. Clothing and grooming rules are relaxed at the private facility -- as they would be in a Hawaiian prison -- with some prisoners allowed to wear a traditional Polynesian skirt, called a lava-lava, while inside their cells, authorities said.

If people outside the facility showed little interest in the threat posed by the new prisoners, authorities inside were keenly focused on it.

With its own facilities desperately crowded and the cost of housing inmates prohibitively expensive, Hawaii began exporting its prisoners in 1995 -- against the protests of convicts' families and other advocates. (State officials said it cost them $102 a day to house the inmates in Hawaii, $52 a day in Arizona and $43 in Mississippi.) Suddenly mixed with inmates from other states, the felons sought to strengthen their position inside mainland prisons by forming a gang called the United Samoan Organization, or USO, Tallahatchie assistant warden Dick Smelser said.

Ben Griego, a prison consultant who helped train the Tutwiler staff, said cultural differences had worked in the inmates' favor in the past. The Hawaiian inmates were so neat and seemingly well-behaved, he said, that prison officers at times lowered their guard.

In a private prison in Florence, Ariz., a group of prisoners was found to be distributing alcohol and drugs and operating a prostitution ring using female Immigration and Naturalization Service detainees. A Hawaiian state inspection team that visited the site in 2001 reported: "The USO family runs this facility."

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