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How Did Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps Land Behind Bars Himself?

Chris Epps was accused of accepting at least $1.4 million in bribes and kickbacks while serving as the corrections commissioner for the state of Mississippi.

By Jill Sederstrom
Chris Epps

For years, Chris Epps ran the state of Mississippi’s prisons—now he calls prison home.

The state’s former corrections commissioner is currently serving time at a federal prison in Texas for running one of Mississippi’s largest criminal conspiracies.

Epps pleaded guilty in February of 2015 to bribery and filing a false income tax return after federal prosecutors say he accepted at least $1.4 million in bribes and kickbacks while in the top position of commissioner in exchange for steering more than $800 million worth of state prison contracts, according to The Clarion Ledger.

While he was lining his pockets, prisoners and families of the incarcerated said inmates were deprived of basic rights and forced to live in facilities with black mold, inedible food and sewage backups.

“The problem was with these kickbacks, the money wasn’t going back into the prison system and so it’s all of society that suffered by that corruption,” FBI Special Agent Molly Motley-Blythe told CNBC's “American Greed” in a new examination of the case airing Tuesday at 10 p.m. “Whenever somebody in public power is lining their pockets, everybody who believed in them suffers.”

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Epps once appeared to be the epitome of success. He grew up in the poorest county in America working on his grandparents Mississippi farm before earning his first job as a guard within the state’s prison system.

He soon worked his way up to become the director of security at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm. The notorious facility has been the subject of numerous lawsuits describing deplorable and unsanitary conditions like sewage backups, extreme isolation, black mold and failing facilities.

The wife of one inmate, who was referred to by “American Greed” only as Dawn, described the prison as “the worst of the worst” and said that in the summer months it can reach temperatures in excess of 100 degrees inside the facility.

According to investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell, the prison has also been rife with corruption for decades.

“I’ve talked to people who were in prison, inmates in prison in the 1970s at Parchman and they told me Chris Epps was corrupt way back then,” Mitchell said. “It was something that had been going on the whole time.”

However, Epps was able to charm people with his folksy, straight-shooting style and quickly rose through the corrections department’s ranks until he became the corrections commissioner in 2002.

“Most everybody liked Chris Epps,” Jimmie Gates, a former reporter with The Clarion Ledger told “American Greed.” “He was loved in the Black community and then you know, he was loved in the white community at that time.”

Epps oversaw the prison system’s annual budget of $350 million, more than half of which was used for government contracts to pay for various aspects of prison life, like commissary or telephone systems.

It was in that post that authorities say Epps used his position of power to steer contracts to his preferred vendors through a variety of no-bid contract deals—negotiating a secret kickback for himself in the process.

In one instance, Epps helped future co-conspirator Cecil McCrory land a commissary contract for his company GTE Enterprises and then demanded he receive payments of $3,000 to $4,000 a month, which were often hand-delivered at breakfast meetings at a waffle house, according to “American Greed."

In another instance, a financial analyst with the FBI uncovered evidence that McCrory had made wire transfers directly to Epps’ mortgage holder as part of a payment agreement.

“The more money Cecil made the more money he could give back to Commissioner Epps,” FBI Special Agent Tye Breedlove said.

Epps had similar arrangements with other contractors.

As a result of these kickbacks, Epps—who had a state salary of $132,000 a year—lived a lavish lifestyle, often wearing tailored suits, a Rolex, driving a Mercedes-Benz, and living in an affluent gated suburb.

In total, he was accused in a federal indictment of taking at least $1.4 million in bribes and kickbacks.

The scheme came to an end after federal investigators launched a probe into the commissioner’s activities, complete with wire taps and secret video recordings that showed Epps collecting stacks of cash.

He was indicted on 49 counts in February of 2014 and later agreed to plead guilty to bribery and filing a false income tax return.

Although prosecutors recommended a sentence of 13 years behind bars, U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate sentenced the former commissioner to just under 20 years behind bars and admonished him for what he called “the largest graft operation in the state of Mississippi,” according to the local paper.

"Mississippi is still in shock,” Wingate said of the scheme while handing down the sentence. “It was an act of betrayal. He has bruised the image of Mississippi and given joy to many of the inmates he's overseen who can now say the head of the state prison system was just as corrupt as any of them."

To learn more about the scandal, tune in to “American Greed,” Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CNBC.

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