AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

The Prison Reform Blues

Chris Epps wanted to reform Mississippi’s harsh, decrepit prison system. Now he’s facing three centuries in the slammer.

To prison reformers, Christopher Epps was a savior. Mississippi’s notorious prison system was overcrowded and inhumane when Epps took over as corrections commissioner in 2002. He reduced sentences for nonviolent offenders, shrunk the prison population, and took hundreds of inmates out of indefinite solitary confinement. Prison reformers called it the “Mississippi Miracle.”

By the time he turned 53, Epps was America’s longest-serving prison commissioner, the first in Mississippi’s history to be appointed by both Democratic and Republican governors. His peers thought so highly of him that he was elected president of two prison administrator professional associations: the American Corrections Association and the Association of State Correctional Administrators.

In short, Chris Epps knew prisons. He’d spent four decades working in the system. Starting as a guard in Mississippi’s oldest prison in 1982, he worked his way to the top of Mississippi’s Department of Corrections in just two decades. Over the next 12 years he became a star.

Prisoner’s rights advocates liked him. Correctional officers liked him. Defense lawyers liked him. Prosecutors liked him. Reporters liked him. Politicians liked him. There might not have been a more universally respected and admired public official in all of Mississippi than Chris Epps.

Then on Nov. 5, he quit his job abruptly, without saying why.

The next day the news broke: allegations of kickbacks for nearly $1 billion worth of private prison contracts. More than $1 million in bribes. A federal investigation, a federal indictment, “a major blow to the systemic and evasive corruption in our state government,” U.S. Attorney Harold Britain said on the steps of the federal courthouse.

Chris Epps knew prisons. Now he faces up to 368 years in one.

Photo Courtesy of ACLU. Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed.

For most of the 20th century Mississippi had one state prison. Mississippi State Penitentiary opened in 1901. It stretched across 18,000 acres in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. Most of those acres were cotton fields, and Mississippi quickly learned that prisons could turn a profit. The land was once a plantation that had belonged to the Parchman family, and after the state bought the land and built the prison, the governor appointed Jim Parchman warden. The state needed a warden who knew how to run a plantation.

The prisoners picked cotton and the state collected the money. Most of the prisoners were black; all the guards were white. The facility was so understaffed that the warden picked a group of obedient inmates to work as “trusty-shooters.” These men wore vertical stripes and carried rifles, and if an inmate in the field tried to run off, the trusty-shooter was supposed to shoot him.

The prison, with its constant supply of almost-free labor, was a lucrative venture for the state. During its first full year of operation, the prison generated around $185,000 (nearly $5 million in 2014 dollars). Within a decade the prison was earning the state $1 million a year. By then most people called it Parchman Farm. “The closest thing to slavery to survive the Civil War,” wrote David Oshinsky in Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.

It was a brutal place to serve time. The cells reached up to 120 degrees in the summer and were infested with insects. In 1915 the state conducted medical experiments on inmates. Guards punished prisoners by whipping them with a leather strap called “Black Annie,” or locking them naked in a 6-foot-by-6-foot windowless, bathroomless room for three days, or handcuffing them to a fence, or zapping them with a cattle prod, or force-feeding them laxatives, or starving them with no more than one meal a day. A character in William Faulkner’s The Mansion called Parchman “Destination doom.”

It went on this way for decades. Then the 1960s arrived, and with it the prisoners’ rights movement.

In 1971 a group of inmates and lawyers sued Mississippi over the conditions at Parchman. A year later, federal judge William Keady ruled that the treatment of inmates there was unconstitutional. “Of such severity to offend the modern concepts of human dignity,” he wrote. He barred corporal punishment, trusty-shooters, extended isolation, and the racially segregated housing system. Gov. William Waller formed a committee to reform Parchman. The committee recommended that the state abandon the for-profit farming system, and that Parchman be run by a prison expert instead of a plantation expert.

At this time two-thirds of Parchman’s inmates were black. Two of its guards were black. Keady had ordered the state to hire more black guards, and so the state did, and in 1982 Chris Epps took a job on the graveyard shift.

Photo Courtesy of ACLU. Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed.

Epps grew up in Tchula, Mississippi, a small town in the heart of the Delta, halfway between Parchman and Jackson. In 1960 less than 900 people lived in Tchula, almost all of them black. Tchula was the poorest town in a poor state. It had produced great blues singers like Jimmy Dawkins and Lester Davenport, but most locals were farmers who worked on the fertile farms owned by the rich folks who lived in the towns just outside Tchula.

“Some of the best farmland in America, some of the most successful plantations were in that area,” said Sid Salter, a longtime newspaper columnist in Mississippi. “You had this terrible pocket of poverty in Tchula that was surrounded by this genteel Delta society. So for a poor kid growing up in Tchula there would’ve been a whole lot of sense of being on the outside looking into the dime store.”

Epps’ parents were not farmers but educators, and Epps followed their path at first. He graduated from Mississippi Valley State University with a degree in elementary education. He was teaching fifth grade science and math when the state’s corrections department called him with the job offer. He had filled out an application during a college job fair a couple of years earlier.

He accepted the new job but didn’t leave his old one. Epps taught during the day then worked as a guard at Parchman from 4 p.m. to midnight. After three years he quit teaching because he realized he could make more money in corrections, he once explained in an industry newsletter. (Through his lawyers, Epps declined an interview request for this story.)

He was a skilled prison guard. Salter met him in 1983 when he went to Parchman to interview an inmate on death row. “He had a calming effect on the prisoners,” said Salter. “I found him to be very personable, but also kind of a no-nonsense officer.”

Willie Simmons, who later became a state senator, worked at Parchman’s job training program in the 1980s, and remembers Epps as quiet and focused during work hours. “Low-key,” Simmons said. “Not as outgoing as some of the other young guys. Wasn’t one of those social, party-types.”

“Watching him,” Simmons added, “you could tell he was one of those people who wasn’t satisfied with being a security officer. He had aspirations to grow in the system.”

The timing was perfect. In the mid-1970s, state officials had decided to restructure the corrections system. The prison board merged with the probation and parole board and the state built new low-security facilities for minor offenders over the next few years. In 1986 the corrections department opened a new penitentiary for the first time since Parchman. Another opened in 1989. The new prisons meant new jobs to fill, and mid-level administrators got promoted to high-level positions at the new facilities, and so the mid-level jobs opened up, and so on.

Epps was well-positioned to make the jump to the administrative side. Those positions required a college degree. Epps had that. Many of his white fellow guards did not.

“The majority of black employees working in security had actually gone to college, while most of the white employees working in security had not gone to college,” said Simmons. “So it was the black employees who were first in line to be elevated for promotion to all of these professional positions. You saw a lot of blacks becoming captains and lieutenants and majors, department heads and supervisors. That was a good feeling for those of us who went into the system not knowing that the window ceiling was going to be open.”

Epps impressed superiors at every stage with his grasp of the system and his energy for the job. “He was always eager to do more than what was asked of him,” said Willie Bozeman, a lobbyist for prisoners’ rights groups and a former state representative. “He was always aggressive with learning what he wasn’t required to learn.”

In 1988, Epps was named Parchman’s deputy superintendent, which put him in charge of the prison’s day-to-day operations. A few years later, he was promoted to deputy commissioner of community relations, which put him in charge of the state’s probation and parole system. Then in 2000, newly appointed corrections commissioner Robert Johnson named Epps his deputy. “He was very knowledgeable about corrections, and particularly the Mississippi corrections process,” said Johnson. “He was enthusiastic, really wanting to please both the people he worked for and the people he worked with.”

Epps now oversaw every penitentiary in Mississippi. The system looked a lot different from the one he entered in 1982. In 1982 there were around 5,000 inmates in Mississippi state facilities. In 2002, there were more than 20,000. Tough-on-crime policies of the ’80s and ’90s fueled the explosion: mandatory minimums, Three Strikes penalties, truth-in-sentencing laws that reduced probation and parole eligibility, the War on Drugs.

By the early ’90s state officials realized swelling prisons were straining state budgets. To save money, the state turned to the private prison industry.

In 1993 the Mississippi legislature passed a bill to build a series of facilities that the state would hand over to private prison companies. The law required that a contract was at least 10% cheaper than what it would have cost the state to house the inmates in a public prison. In 1982, there was one state penitentiary in Mississippi, and zero private prisons anywhere in America. By 2002, there were five private prisons and three state prisons in Mississippi, as well as a steadily rising inmate population.

One of those state prisons was in bad shape. Parchman had deteriorated and turned increasingly violent.

“You walk in there, I tell you what, you could just feel the bad vibes,” said Robert Burdge, Parchman’s chaplain from 1996 to 2005.

Inmates at Parchman’s death row unit complained of inhumane conditions. It was far from the quasi-plantation of the past, but it was also way behind modern standards. The facility had no fans or air conditioners and inmates said the cells were like ovens in the summer. The sewer system was broken and toilets often backed up. Inmates could go outside, into a steel cage, no more than three times a week. Some inmates went on a hunger strike in protest.

“Conditions there were unbelievably atrocious,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. In July 2002 the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

The next month, Robert Johnson resigned and Gov. Ronnie Musgrove appointed Epps corrections commissioner.

Photo Courtesy of ACLU. Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed.

Epps fought the suit. He defended the department’s work at Parchman. The case went to trial. Epps lost. A judge ordered the department to improve the conditions at the death row unit. Epps appealed and lost again. “After that his attitude changed considerably,” said Winter, who worked on the lawsuits.

The ACLU filed another suit over conditions at Parchman. This one involved “Unit 32,” the state’s supermax facility, reserved for the prison’s most dangerous inmates, “the worst of the worst,” as Epps put it. In Unit 32, more than a thousand inmates were locked in solitary confinement cells for 23 hours a day, for an indefinite period.

This time Epps did not fight. “He was open to a much more collaborative approach,” said Winter. He met with the lawyers representing the prisoners and they negotiated changes to the facility.

“In a fairly short time he agreed to settle that case,” said Winter. “It was the most far-reaching limits on the use of solitary confinement as has ever been the case at that time.”

As part of the agreement, the ACLU selected advisers to review the files of every inmate in Unit 32. The advisers, working with Epps’ staff, found that most of the inmates in the unit were not particularly dangerous or violent but had simply broken prison rules. Many of them suffered from mental illness. Nearly 80% of the inmates in Unit 32 should not have been in there, the review determined. The department transferred around 700 inmates out of the unit.

Epps admitted that his lockdown philosophy had been misguided. “That was the culture, and I was part of it,” he told the New York Times in 2012. “If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave.”

He eliminated indefinite solitary confinement and allowed inmates to spend more time outside their cells. He let them play basketball and offered them rehab programs. He implemented a system that rewarded good behavior with more privileges, and punished bad behavior with reduced privileges.

Within a few years, Epps declared that violence in the unit had decreased by 70%.

“It was courageous to agree to an extraordinary experiment like this, which had never been done in any other state,” said Winter. “Mississippi became a leader in what was then an embryonic national movement against solitary confinement.”

Suddenly Parchman Farm, the remodeled plantation, was a model for prison reform. Epps became a national figure. He traveled the country telling the story of Unit 32. He was the face of the anti-solitary confinement crusade.

But Epps was no ideologue. He was a numbers man. Solitary confinement is expensive. Some studies have shown it costs three times more to house an inmate in solitary than in general population. In 2010, three years after Epps began reducing Unit 32’s population, he closed the building. Shutting down the unit, he told legislators, would save the state $5 million a year.

Epps’ knowledge of the system, and his ability to recite data off the top of his head, won over potential adversaries. When Haley Barbour, a Republican, defeated incumbent Musgrove, a Democrat, in 2004, the new governor planned to bring in a new corrections commissioner.

Epps requested a meeting with Barbour and said that he hoped to keep his job. “He came over carrying about four notebooks,” Barbour told the Clarion-Ledger. “We met for more than an hour and went through everything. He knew about every criticism I had made about corrections and had answers.”

Corrections is a sophisticated, sprawling, expensive endeavor and most politicians understand little about how the system works. “A governor doesn’t want to do corrections,” said Ron Welch, a civil rights lawyer based in Jackson. “A governor needs somebody able to run a complex system rife with politics.” Epps translated the system into a language that lawmakers could understand. He talked budgets and statistics. And when the recession hit, he explained that the only way to shrink costs was to shrink the inmate population.

“Epps is a very good communicator,” said Simmons, the state senator. “He has a way of making individuals feel comfortable even when he’s telling them the truth that they don’t want to hear. People saw him as a trustworthy person, someone who was going to tell it like it is.”

Trust in Epps gave him wide discretion. The state legislature handed him a tight budget and said, Make it work. And he came back to the statehouse with a proposal that made it work, and in that proposal he began reshaping the state’s criminal justice policy. In 2008 his proposal included a provision that would make non-violent felony offenders eligible for parole after serving 25% of their sentences, instead of 85%. The legislature accepted his pitch, and over the next two years the state released more than 3,000 inmates under the new standard.

Epps made himself accessible to all sides. Prisoners’ rights advocates could come to him about reforms. State legislators could come to him about budgetary concerns. Reporters could call him and he’d personally answer their questions. Defense lawyers could contact him about problems their clients were having in his facilities.

Leslie Lee, the state defender, recalled one defendant who received death threats in jail. For six months Lee tried to get him transferred. She followed normal protocols but the bureaucracy was too thick. Frustrated, she called Epps directly. The inmate was at a new facility within three weeks.

Perhaps no public official in Mississippi was welcome in so many different circles as Epps was. He was a hub that held together many spokes, which gave him a unique power. In 2013, Epps formed and led a task force dedicated to drafting a bill that would overhaul the state’s criminal justice system. His office gathered the data and organized the gatherings. The group included members from every slice of the criminal justice system — prosecutors, defense attorneys, civil rights lawyers, judges, sheriffs, advocates.

“Epps had contact with every group at the table,” said Andre de Gruy, an attorney for the state defender’s office who sat on the task force. “When things got tense in the task force, he would lessen the tension with his likability.”

Epps, by all accounts, had strong political instincts. He remembered names and faces and anecdotes. Before meetings, he asked how your wife was doing and whether your son’s little league team won on Saturday and have you taken the new boat out for a ride yet? At hearings, he always used proper titles. Mr. Chairman. Senator. Sirs and madams.

“He always captures a room,” said Bozeman, the lobbyist. “Whether in a restaurant or church or outside sitting in a parking lot. He’s a guy that you believe. When you see him and talk to him, you know this is an honest and good guy.”

Many on the task force expected a painstaking, perhaps years-long process. Instead, the group crafted a bill within a year. Lee credits Epps, “his personality and persuasive argument.” The bill proposed sweeping changes aimed at diverting non-violent offenders away from prison. Probationers would not go to prison for technical violations like failing a drug test, and judges would have more power to determine sentences. The group calculated that the changes would save the state $266 million over the next decade.

In July 2014 the legislature passed it. “It was one of the most significant pieces of legislation passed in the country this year,” said Jody Owens, a managing attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

And Epps had more plans for reform. Next on his docket were pay raises for prison guards. As always, he framed his argument with pragmatism.

Correctional officers in Mississippi state prisons earned a starting salary of $22,000. Low pay, he explained, was a big reason the corrections department had such trouble with contraband. Inmates offered guards money to smuggle in phones and drugs and other goods. If guards made more, they wouldn’t be so tempted. If guards made more, the department could be more selective with its hiring. And so Chris Epps began his mission to end corruption in Mississippi’s prison system.

Photo Courtesy of ACLU. Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed.

Epps had taken Mississippi’s prison system a long way but he had not removed all the blemishes. Corruption, violence, and deteriorating infrastructure still plagued Mississippi’s prisons. “We’re talking about inheriting a really broken system here,” said Owens, the Southern Poverty Law Center attorney.

The problems lay disproportionately with the private prisons. Private prisons survive by maintaining a certain balance: They must run cheaper than state facilities and they must turn a profit for their executives or shareholders. So to stretch profits, private prisons cut as many costs as possible.

“Any money they save on staffing is money in their pocket,” said Welch, the civil rights lawyer. “That’s the conflict of interest in running the place efficiently with a trained and well-paid staff.”

Guards are poorly paid. At the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, for instance, the average starting salary for a guard is $15,602. They’re also poorly trained. At the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF), guards undergo a three-week training program then one week of on-the-job training. By contrast, the state’s training program is eight weeks.

The result is a constantly rotating cast of young, inexperienced, and unqualified prison guards.

“When you’re a kid basically who’s fresh out of high school and had a couple of jobs in your life like McDonald’s and Walmart, and you come to work at a prison, you’ve got a tough road to haul,” Matthew Naidow, a captain at EMCF, said in a March deposition for an ACLU lawsuit against the prison.

On top of that, facilities are short staffed and poorly maintained. In 2009 four Walnut Grove youths jumped a 15-year-old during a recreation period, according to an ACLU lawsuit against that facility. The only guard on duty had stepped out of the cellblock. In 2010 a teenage inmate at Walnut Grove tied his 16-year-old cellmate to his bed with a sheet and raped him, according to the suit. The 16-year-old hit the panic button in his cell but the button did not work.

After reviewing a long list of allegations, federal judge Carlton Reeves called life at Walnut Grove a “horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”

Mississippi had deepened its dependency on private prisons over the years. In 2002, the private prison industry lobbied the Mississippi legislature to pass a bill that guaranteed contractors a minimum number of inmates, which ensured a steady stream of state funding. Once the state signs over the multimillion-dollar deal and the hundreds of inmates, it lets the company operate freely, with little oversight. Unlike government-run prisons, private prisons are not subject to freedom of information laws.

“There’s just too much money and not enough accountability,” said de Gruy.

Epps seemed to share that view. In 2011, Epps met with a group of attorneys and corrections officials to discuss reforms at private prisons. As the Clarion-Ledger reported, ACLU lawyer Winter asked Epps, “Why don’t you just get rid of the private contractors? We all know they’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.” Epps replied that he could not get rid of them “because of all the money they throw around Jackson.”

Epps’ effort to reduce the state’s prison population collided with the interests of the multibillion-dollar industry Mississippi’s corrections department depended on. Mass incarceration is inevitable as long as the state “allows private corporations to reap huge profits from locking people up,” Winter said. “That’s a recipe for corruption.”

The state’s only leverage against a company is its authority to revoke the contract. In April 2012 Epps kicked out the company running Walnut Grove, the GEO Group. He gave the contract to Management and Training Company (MTC), a Utah-based firm that brings in more than $500 million in yearly revenue — which is little compared to the $1.7 billion that industry leader Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) brings in.

MTC had recently upped its efforts to get business in Mississippi; the year before it had won the contract to operate the East Mississippi Correctional Facility. This was a good state to target. As inmate populations stabilized nationwide in recent years, private prisons lost business. CCA acknowledged as much in a 2010 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission: “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.” Or, to put it more simply: Fewer prisoners means lower profits. Half a century before, prisoners had made money for the state. Now, they made money for the private sector.

MTC disagreed with Winter’s argument that private prisons have a financial incentive in locking people up and keeping them in prison longer.

“I don’t think it’s a logical assumption. Couldn’t be further from the truth,” spokesperson Issa Arnita said. “We are a company that believes strongly in rehabilitating offenders so they don’t offend again once they are released.”

The number of state inmates in private prisons dropped by 5% from 2012 to 2013. But in Mississippi, thanks to the legislature’s minimum guarantees, the number increased. Nationwide, less than 7% of state inmates were in private prisons in 2013. In Mississippi, it was 20%. So this was a good state to target.

In August 2012, Epps awarded MTC the contract for Marshall County Correctional Facility. The following year, he awarded MTC the contract for Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, a notorious prison that some inmates had nicknamed “the Killing Zone” and others had called “the new Unit 32.”

In a three-year stretch, MTC had taken over most of the state’s private prison system, around 5,000 inmates in all. The four contracts totaled around $60 million per year.

MTC billed itself as a private prison company that did the job the right way. When it took over Walnut Grove, for example, it implemented new security measures: body scanners, canine units, a 30-foot netting around the perimeter. “We went through the entire facility looking for areas to improve the security of the facility,” said Arnita. “Including in terms of training and adding to our staff.”

Yet bouts of violence and negligence continued under MTC’s watch. At ECMF, according to Naidow, inmates were often able to disable cell locks. In 2012, an inmate with a 15-inch butcher knife repeatedly raped another inmate over a 24-hour stretch. One inmate who suffered from glaucoma became legally blind over the course of his time at the prison because staff did not give him medicine. Some inmates lit fires or cut themselves when their pleas for service went unheard. At Wilkinson, in May 2014, a group of inmates swarmed an inmate and stabbed him 81 times during lunchtime, killing him. No guards reached the area until 27 minutes after the attack began.

There was a riot at Walnut Grove in December, and another in July. Eldon Vail, a former Washington state corrections secretary hired by the ACLU to inspect the prison, explained in a court statement why the facility was so vulnerable:

“The lack of staff supervision is greatly compounded by the fact that the locking mechanisms on the cell doors at Walnut Grove are readily defeated and control of the cell doors is a continuing problem. Officers at the facility do not always know if an individual cell door is secure.”

It had been two years since Epps switched Walnut Grove to a new contractor. But the prison was no better off.

Photo Courtesy of ACLU. Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed.

Residents of the town of Walnut Grove sometimes spotted inmates in white and green stripes walking around town. Many would call longtime sheriff Greg Waggoner and he’d have to track the inmates down and return them to one of the low-security transition centers outside the prison. The inmates tended to wander off during breaks in their daily work.

Waggoner took his concerns to Mayor Grady Sims. Walnut Grove is a small town of 1,900 people, and here mayor is a part-time job, which Sims had held since 1981. Sims was also warden at one of the transition centers.

One day in 2010, Waggoner received a different kind of call about the center. An inmate was accusing Sims of sexual assault. Waggoner contacted the Department of Corrections, and the two agencies began a joint investigation. They spoke to the accuser and spoke to a few witnesses who backed the story.

Waggoner thought they had a strong case. But then a few weeks in, the corrections investigator working the case “walked into my office and said his boss said he was closing it,” said Waggoner. He found this bizarre. “There was far too much evidence implicating the mayor to stop the investigation of a felony.”

Waggoner called the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which passed the information to the FBI. The FBI opened an investigation — into the allegations against the mayor and into why the corrections department was so quick to reject them. The investigation soon led authorities to Epps. (The FBI would not specify why they began focusing on him.)

In October 2011 prosecutors indicted Sims on sexual assault charges. Sims took a deal and pleaded guilty to witness tampering. The FBI continued surveillance on Epps.

“Looking back now,” said Waggoner, “it was pretty evident to me that Mr. Epps was shutting down the investigation because he didn’t want anything negative being said about this money making side for him.”

Photo Courtesy of ACLU. Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed.

The first payments, federal prosecutors said, came in 2007. They came from Cecil McCrory, a former state representative. “Multiple cash payments in the amount of $3,000 to $4,000 on approximately 15 occasions for the MDOC contract that had been awarded to McCrory’s company,” the indictment stated.

Cecil McCrory, 62, was not a prominent legislator. “A back-bencher,” columnist Salter called him. But he had made moves over the years. He became a local judge and got a seat on his county’s school board. He started a private prison contracting service. He got jobs as a consultant for private prison companies. “He was a hustler,” said Welch, the civil rights attorney. (McCrory did not respond to an interview request for this story.)

From 2007 through 2013, the indictment stated, McCrory paid Epps more than $1 million — sometimes cash, sometimes cashier’s checks, sometimes wire transfers to mortgages for homes Epps owned, sometime deposits into Epps’ investment account.

Over that stretch, Epps awarded five contracts to companies owned by McCrory and six contracts to companies that had hired McCrory as a consultant. Among the deals: two Walnut Grove transition center contracts to McCrory’s company in 2009 and four contracts to MTC, which had employed McCrory as a consultant. Epps had recommended McCrory to MTC, according to prosecutors, and after McCrory got the job Epps told him, “I got us $12,000 per month.”

MTC denied knowledge of any bribes and fired McCrory days after the arraignment. Gov. Phil Bryant announced that every contract cited in the indictment would be re-opened for bidding.

All across Mississippi people looked back for signs. There was the 2011 Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility report criticizing Epps for awarding a food service contract without taking bids. He had awarded it to McCrory’s company. There were the meetings with sheriffs when he recommended, maybe a little too strongly, contractors for various jail services. There were the letters he wrote to the Mississippi State Personnel Board requesting permission to bypass the bidding process and select a contractor himself, because a particular company “is the only vendor that can provide the services as outlined.” But these had been blips.

Some thought about the nice suits and watches Epps wore. Some thought about the two Mercedes-Benzes he and his wife owned. Some thought about his beachfront condo. Then again… the man made $132,000 a year. His wife worked too. Their two children were grown. No giveaways there.

Mostly, the lawyers, politicians, activists, officials, and everyone else who had praised Epps thought about how they felt about him, the man who had long led the charge against Mississippi’s system of mass incarceration.

“If you wrote a book on Chris Epps, the first 10 chapters of the book were chapters of greatness and accomplishments, and things he was able to do in a system that is very difficult to manage,” said Simmons, the state senator. “And then the last chapter to be written is the one we see being written today.”

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Albert Samaha is the criminal justice reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Albert Samaha at albert.samaha@buzzfeed.com.

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