Mitchell—Legislature should make changes to Keefe Commissary Prison Contracts
State prison canteen contract needs more oversight | The Clarion-Ledger | www.clarionledger.com: www.clarionledger.com/article/20110825/OPINION/108…ion|p
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.
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