JACKSON, MS (WLOX) - Dangerous working conditions combined with a starting salary of around $2,000 a month has the Mississippi Department of Corrections facing a staffing crisis.
To see the impact of the state’s shortage of correctional officers, look no further than the South Mississippi Correctional Institution where the prison’s staff vacancy rate is just short of 50 percent. In the last month the Leakesville jail was placed on lockdown, with visitation and other privileges canceled indefinitely.
“Everybody knows around Leakesville that it’s just a matter of time before something bad happens,” said Sen. Dennis Debar.
“The ratio of inmates to correctional officers is astronomical,” Debar said. “They can overpower our guards at any time, they know it, the correctional officers know it and the citizens know it.”
Debar believes the biggest key to a solution is paying the guards more. Right now the starting salary is just under $25,000 a year compared to a national average of $32,000 annually.
MDOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall is calling on the legislature to appropriate $7.1 million to bring the entry-level salary up to between $28,000 and $31,000.
Sen. Brice Wiggins sees the need, but he also recognizes the long list of other state employees needing pay increases and is cautious.
“When you add the teacher pay raise, that’s $25 million spread across the state, you add another $30 million for PERS (Public Employee’s Retirement System), then you have other pay raises, that’s adding that money to the state budget going forward,” Wiggins said. “It’s worthwhile, but we have to be cognizant of what we’re doing.”
While the legislature is working on if and when to implement prison guard pay raises. Debar believes a temporary fix would be to send more inmates to county and regional jails.
“Housing inmates in regional jails is cheaper than in our state institutions,” Debar said. “Until the staffing shortages can be fixed put them in our regional jails.”
The legislature started the appropriations process this week. Even though Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Buck Clarke said it’s not clear if there will be enough money to give raises to other state workers besides teachers, Debar remains optimistic.
“We’re still waiting on the final revenue numbers at the end of March and then we’ll determine what’s available, how much and where it should go,” Debar said.
The last pay raise for prison officers in Mississippi came in 2016, and 2007 was the last year for across the board pay raises for all Mississippi state employees.