MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A new legislative session started in Mississippi Tuesday and the state’s outgoing governor says he hopes security at state prisons will be a top concern for lawmakers.
But WMC Action News 5 found lawmakers are proposing more cuts to the Department of Corrections.
Federal inspectors conducting a Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, audit found several security issues at Parchman more than three years ago.
Inspectors noted correctional officers in nearly all the housing units at the all-male facility “were females who had less than a year of experience.”
“We were advised by administrative staff that 77% of the correctional staff are female. We saw few supervisors while we were making rounds in the housing areas,” the inspectors wrote.
The inspectors said two trainees had to staff an entire unit by themselves.
“It was difficult to determine how often rounds were made in the bed areas. It appeared that the rounds were infrequent and made by female staff who had to announce their presence,” the inspectors wrote.
The inspectors said they noticed some cameras in a maximum-security holding area “weren’t under constant observation.” The problems, of course, aren’t limited to Parchman. The state ranks last in the region for corrections officer pay, with a starting salary of just under $25,000, according to the Southern Legislative Conference.
Mississippi also has the highest turnover rate in the region (47.5%) and hundreds of positions remain unfilled.
“Obviously, it would be better if we had more people working in the prisons,” said Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. “Twenty-five thousand (dollars) a year to work at Parchman; it’s not always easy to find the people that want to dedicate themselves to a career in corrections.”
Bryant says no one cares about prisons until something goes wrong. He says he has proposed spending increases, but it fell on deaf ears in the legislature.
Indeed, Bryant requested more funding for prisons, including $7 million last year to bring guard pay up to the regional average.
But lawmakers cut funding for corrections by millions in recent years.
Just last month, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which is chaired by incoming Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the incoming governor, recommended slashing the corrections budget by another $8 million.
WMC Action News 5 reached out to Reeves to ask him about those proposed cuts. His office declined to provide a comment for this story.
However, a few days ago on Twitter, Reeves said, "There is much work to be done in our correctional system."
Bryant leaves office next week, but the problems plaguing prisons will remain.
“What does the future look like? What does the next four years look like for the Department of Corrections?” Bryant asked. “Improvements must be made.”