Christopher Epps was the Mississippi Corrections Commissioner for 12 of the 22 years that Willie Manning has spent on the state’s death row. Now Epps is facing his own lengthy incarceration – nearly 20 years of it – for taking $1.4 million in bribes. Epps was sentenced by a federal judge last week to 19½ years in prison and a fine of $100,000. He has also forfeited more than $1.7 million in assets. His long prison sentence reflects the extent of the conspiracy web in which he was entangled.
From humble beginnings in the Mississippi Delta, Epps followed his parents into teaching while also working a shift as a guard at Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman. He soon dropped teaching, but his college degree helped him into an administrative position as Parchman’s deputy superintendent. And in 2002 he secured the top job – Corrections Commissioner for the state.
Epps was a reforming commissioner, and was popular. As Albert Samaha puts it:
“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.”
But Epps’ downfall was greed. He began awarding prison contracts to those who made personal payments to him. The investigation into Epps has uncovered many that he worked with, including former state representatives, a doctor with contracts to treat prison inmates, the owner of a drug testing company, and a prison consultant.
Judge Wingate did not mince his words when sentencing Epps:
“This is the largest graft operation in the state of Mississippi, definitely the largest I have seen. Mr. Epps… was able to have expensive homes and a vacation home; he was able to afford luxury cars and have fat bank accounts.
Mississippi is still in shock. It was an act of betrayal. He has bruised the image of Mississippi and given joy to many of the inmates he has overseen who can now say the head of the state prison system was just as corrupt as any of them.”
As State Senator Willie Simmons said of Epps:
“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. And then the last chapter to be written is the one we see being written today.”