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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, October 3, 2005

Prison keeps impoverished town alive

 •  Years of problems yield few answers

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Staff Writer

The water tower outside the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in economically depressed Tutwiler, Miss., is inscribed: "Welcome to Tutwiler, MS, Where the Blues Was Born."

MIKE BROWN | Special to The Advertiser

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The Rev. Andrew Hawkins, retired from a corrections career himself, sees the prison and the jobs it provides as a boon to his community.

MIKE BROWN | Special to The Advertiser

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TUTWILER, Miss. This tiny town has a slow feel to it.

Some of that is a testament to southern graciousness, when people make time for one another. Some of it is due to a menacing apathy that festers when people are out on the street with nowhere to go.

Tutwiler is a wounded town, with collapsing brick walls and boarded-up windows along its two-block commercial district. Already by 8 a.m., a group of hard-looking men stand in a park near the coin-operated laundry, waiting and watching.

In a town this small, "you can probably count the crackheads that walk around," said the Rev. Andrew Hawkins, chief executive of the Tallahatchie County Ministerial Alliance. From his office, Hawkins calls out to youngsters who wander across the silent railroad tracks, reminding them that he is watching, too.

This community in the North Delta region, described in federal reports as one of the most depressed areas of the country, is where the Corrections Corp. of America built the 1,104-bed Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in 2000. The prison holds more than 850 Hawai'i inmates.

It is a gleaming structure a mile and a half from the wreckage of the town's commercial district, and looks like an overgrown big-box retail outlet encircled by towering fences and stretched spools of razor wire.

Midway between the prison and the battered homes of Tutwiler, next to Highway 49, is a water tower that displays this invitation: "Welcome to Tutwiler, MS, Where the Blues Was Born."

A TOWN TIME PASSED BY

People like Hawkins, who was born and raised in West Tallahatchie County, see the prison as a bit of hope. He remembers the picture-frame factory and the sewing factory before they closed, and how trains used to regularly rattle through Tutwiler.

"There wasn't any dilapidated buildings," he said. "You didn't feel bad about what was going on around you."

Hawkins, retired from a career in the Mississippi Department of Corrections himself, loans space in his ministry offices to CCA for a classroom, and the company trains recruits there five days a week. Hawkins has been a consistent supporter of the prison.

The 325 jobs at the prison offer the best-paying work around, said chief of security Danny Dodd. CCA's starting pay in Tutwiler is about $8.40 an hour, considerably less than the $13.20 an hour for new corrections officers in Hawai'i, but Dodd said there is no shortage of applicants.

There is significant staff turnover, which means the prison is often short-handed. Tutwiler resident Mary Meeks said her husband pulls double shifts at the prison as often as twice a week because people quit or don't show up for work.

Some residents said they were led to believe the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility would hold only Mississippi lawbreakers, and were alarmed to learn the company was importing prisoners.

A community meeting was called to discuss the out-of-state inmates, but little came of it. Not everyone in Tutwiler likes the prison, but any community opposition apparently sputtered out.

Inside the prison, Hawai'i inmates say they have grown increasingly comfortable with a corrections staff that has become more professional since the convicts first arrived in May 2004.

Initially, the inmates considered the mostly black corrections officers as rigid and harsh, likely because they were fresh from their training course. The muscular, heavily tattooed Hawai'i felons looked strange and threatening to the Tutwiler locals, and they spoke in slang and pidgin that was nothing like the guards' southern drawls.

To ease the transition, CCA transferred managers to Mississippi who had worked with Hawai'i inmates in Oklahoma, Minnesota or Arizona.

RICE AND MAKAHIKI

Pidgin aside, CCA officials said cultural differences have not caused any major problems. Except for minor accommodations such as serving rice at meals, permitting makahiki celebrations at the Diamondback Correctional Facility in Oklahoma, and allowing Hawai'i inmates at Tutwiler to wear their hair longer than other prisoners, the officials said convicts are treated like those from any other state.

The Hawai'i inmates customarily take their shoes off before entering their cells, and former Tallahatchie Warden James Cooke described the lot as a "pretty good group of inmates, very polite and super clean. They clean all the time." His comments echo similar assessments by wardens at other Mainland prisons over the years.

STAFF MOSTLY FEMALE

At Tallahatchie, almost two-thirds of the corrections officers are women, and one of the more peculiar complaints from Hawai'i inmates and some of their wives back home is that female guards can see the prisoners when they shower.

Contract monitors last year described the Mississippi staff as young and inexperienced, and said most had never worked in a prison before. CCA requires five weeks of training, compared with eight weeks for Hawai'i corrections officers.

According to monitoring reports, in the first six months after the Hawai'i inmates arrived, several employees were fired for smuggling cigarettes into the prison and having inappropriate relationships with inmates a problem that has arisen at other Mainland prisons where Hawai'i prisoners have been held.

Experienced corrections officials told The Advertiser that for a men's prison, it's best to have a staff that is at least 75 percent male, but Cooke said he didn't see his majority female staff as a problem.

"We can't discriminate. Whoever is the best person that comes in, if you're the best, that's who we choose," said Cooke, who retired shortly after The Advertiser visited the prison. "You want somebody who will stand with you. You don't care if they're male or female, just so long as they will stand with you."

Inmates complain about the medical and dental services at Tallahatchie, gripes that were confirmed last year when Hawai'i prison monitors warned CCA the prison was failing to meet National Commission on Correctional Health Care Standards because a doctor was there only eight hours a week to care for almost 1,000 convicts.

In May, the monitors warned that dental services were insufficient because a dentist was available only eight hours a week, but the backlog of inmates waiting for dental care had been somewhat reduced when inspectors returned last month.

AMENITIES POPULAR

Hawai'i inmates praised the rehabilitation programs available at Tallahatchie. One example is a yearlong drug-treatment program for up to 64 prisoners at a time. Prisoners are paid to participate because the course is so intense and they cannot hold prison jobs while they are enrolled, said counselor Tekesha McGowan. The modest pay provides money for store orders in the prison commissary.

"I would take this over Halawa (Correctional Facility) any day," said Daniel Carse, who is serving a 10-year sentence for negligent homicide.

There are fewer educational opportunities available at Tallahatchie, he said, but "the (recreation) up here alone, to me, is worth it. You've got weights, you've got all kinds of games up here, you can go play baseball, shuffleboard, you've got all kinds of stuff up here. At Halawa, they run the rec if the (guard) wants to."

Carse also rated Tallahatchie as safer than Halawa because the design of the prison allows corrections officers to respond more rapidly to fights and other problems.

Howard Komori, supervisor of the state Department of Public Safety monitors who inspect the Mainland prisons, said there is more of a "campus atmosphere" at the facilities that inmates favor.

"They are spoiled with their Xboxes and their TVs and their hotpots, and they can cook their rice inside the day room," he said. "All of those things, you can't do that at Halawa."

Cooke and his former staff described the store orders, video visits with family members and television sets in cells as "management tools," privileges that can be withheld if inmates don't behave.

The prison has "zero tolerance" for gang activity. Inmates who are involved in gangs are placed in the Special Housing Incentive Program, or SHIP, where all privileges are taken away. The inmates then have to earn them back.

CCA does not attempt to separate gang-affiliated prisoners, and inmates said keeping rival gang members in the same unit can be dangerous when things go wrong. There has already been one disturbance in a unit that houses gang members at Tallahatchie.

On July 17, 20 cell doors in a SHIP unit popped open unexpectedly at around 2:45 a.m., freeing inmates. Ronnie J. Lonoaea, 32, of Hawai'i was severely beaten in his cell before guards released tear gas and restored order about 90 minutes later.

Scott Lee of Hawai'i, who suffered a broken jaw in the incident, recalled how some prisoners in the unit frantically tried to close their jammed cell doors because they feared an attack by fellow inmates.

A CCA investigation concluded the cell doors probably opened because a corrections sergeant hit the wrong control button. Komori said the sergeant and a captain who supervised the unit no longer work at the prison.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.