Staffing concerns have been an issue for the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

As recent as October of last year, MDOC transferred 400 inmates from the South Mississippi Correctional Institution due to staff shortages. The prison in Leakesville is the same facility convicted murderer Michael Wilson escaped from last week. 

State Sen. Brice Wiggins serves on the Senate Corrections committee and he recognizes the challenges of keeping jails secure. “We’re dealing with criminals that have a lot of time on their hands,” said Wiggins. 

Wiggins said part of what he believes makes the challenge of dealing with those criminals hard to overcome is an under paid and under trained work force.

According to MDOC’s website, the starting salary for a correctional officer is $2,075 a month, just under $25,000 a year. “Every commissioner that’s served since I’ve been in the legislature has said we need to get the pay up for the corrections officers,” said Wiggins. 

In the last two years, crackdowns at South Mississippi Correctional Institution have produced large amounts of contraband including cell phones, drugs and sharp objects. In multiple instances prison employees have been arrested for smuggling in contraband.

Wiggins thinks guards being involved in the contraband activity could be a direct connection to low pay. “If front line officers pay can be raised and we can provide that then it would maybe lessen the desire to do that stuff,” said Wiggins. 

In 2014, Mississippi legislature passed what has been described as the most comprehensive criminal justice reform package in state history. It was designed to lower the prison population and four years later the numbers show it’s working.

The total MDOC inmate population has dropped from 22,000 in 2013 to 19,000 this year. “We went from being number two in the country in incarceration rates to number five in the country,” Wiggins said. 

Wiggins says the lower inmate population should free up money in the MDOC budget for prison employees, but there’s a catch. He noted, “What tends to happen in these agencies is that when there’s a pay increase, they go to their favorite people as opposed to the ones on the front lines.”

In March of 2018, 2,645 inmates were housed in Leakesville, more than 300 people below the prison’s listed capacity.

Copyright 2018 WLOX. All rights reserved.

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