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Salter: Walnut Grove Mayor Says Media, Lawmakers Ignoring Closure Impacts

Walnut Grove Mayor Brian Gomillion is hurt, mad, disheartened, and more than justifiably frightened about the economic future of the town he serves over the closing of the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility.

It’s the loss of 215 jobs in a town of less than 500. It’s the loss of $180,000 in tax revenue than isn’t likely to be replaced to pay for city services. There’s a total $618,500 impact to the city. In reaction, Gomillion furloughed city workers. Town police took a $2 per hour pay cut. Some employees left. For a small town mayor, those are problems enough.

But Gomillion says the media and state lawmakers are missing what he considers the main point of the closure, which he says is that Mississippi taxpayers remain on the hook for $93 million in bonds for construction of the Walnut Grove prison, plus the costs of security and maintenance.

“I remain so irate about this for my town,” said Gomillion. “I can get no one to listen to me about the impact this is having and especially no one in the media to realize about the $93 million.

“I’ll be honest, I don’t know how my town is going to survive,” he said. “Yes, we were dependent upon the prison but Walnut Grove welcomed it when the state wanted to put it somewhere and now we are left with the expense of maintaining (the infrastructure of) what the town had to put into it to serve it.”

The Legislature created the prison through enabling legislation in House Bill 1239 in 1998, authored by former Leake County state Rep. Bennett Malone. The legislation established the Walnut Grove Correctional Authority as a financing entity.

The Walnut Grove Correctional Authority was set up ​as a​ financing tool for the state to lease purchase the facility. The financing was to be paid off in 2027.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections announced the closure of the facility last month. In my last column, I recounted the litany of precursors to the shuttering of the prison – abuse and neglect of prisoners, inhumane conditions, beatings, rape, and gang violence.

In addition to the inhumanities suffered by the prisoners, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves cited alleged collusion between some prison guards and gang members. A federal investigation revealed corruption and kickbacks at the prison, too.

Former Mississippi Commissioner of Public Safety Chris Epps pleaded guilty in 2015 to corruption charges alleging that he and co-conspirator Cecil McCrory, a former lawmaker and president of the Rankin County school board, engaged in a criminal conspiracy that saw Epps take nearly $2 million in bribes and kickbacks. Epps pleaded guilty specifically to money laundering conspiracy and filing a false tax return. McCrory pleaded guilty to money laundering conspiracy.

In addition, former longtime Walnut Grove Mayor Grady Sims was sentenced to serve seven months in federal prison for federal witness tampering. Sims pled guilty to the charge on February 14, 2012. Sims had been the town’s mayor since 1981 and served in the post continually for over 30 years. In October 2009, Sims also became the administrator of the Walnut Grove Transition Center in Walnut Grove.

Gomillion links the Epps and Sims scandals along with the internal prison corruption, abuse, and neglect cited by the federal courts to the closure, but says the closure still makes no sense.
The young mayor reiterates the fact that state taxpayers, and not just those in Walnut Grove, owe $93 million on construction of the prison. He also points out that the facility could – and should – have future life as one of many different kinds of public facilities, not necessarily just as a prison. He’s lobbying hard for that infusion of what he considers both vision and sanity.

“It is not logical to close a less than 20-year-old facility that $93 million is still owed on by Mississippi taxpayers unless you are wanting to hurt Walnut Grove, Leake County, and surrounding area for being the epicenter of ultimately exposing one of ​the largest (public) corruption scandals in Mississippi history,” said Gomillion. “The facility may have been plagued by problems but in the last two years, new management has made a difference.”

For its part, MDOC has said the state simply no longer needed the private prison beds in Walnut Grove.

Sid Salter--studio headshot

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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