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Prison chief asks House to keep same budget, make no cuts

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The head of Mississippi's prison system is asking the Legislature not to make any cuts to the department's budget for the next fiscal year starting July 1.

At a House Appropriations Committee meeting Wednesday, Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher recapped his efforts to cut costs and asked for $374 million in funding to address a need for additional agents and guards, realign employee salaries and make repairs to state prisons. The amount is the same as the department's current budget.

The Corrections Department is "seriously understaffed" after losing more than 200 employees since September, bringing the total number of employees to 2,343, Fisher said.

The shortage leaves probation and parole agents ill equipped to handle the record number of 30,000 inmates under their supervision. Each agent is handling anywhere from 150 to 250 cases, he said.

He said employees have been leaving the department for jobs with local law enforcement where they could get higher salaries. He wants to realign or increase officers' and guards' salaries to stop turnover.

First-year prison guards currently get a starting salary of a little more than $22,500 and probation and parole agents get a starting salary of nearly $26,500.

"I believe a livable wage goes a long way," he said.

Fisher said he also wants to hire an additional 75 guards and an additional 75 agents. Last year, there were 50 assaults by inmates against state prison guards.

The department made a number of changes to two major inmate programs after Fisher became commissioner in January 2015 in an effort to cut costs, including reducing reimbursement to counties in the joint state-county work program and cutting capacity for regional prisons to 80 percent.

The money saved from those cuts is being reinvested in programs that help nonviolent offenders re-enter society, with a goal of reducing the number of inmates state prisons must house and guard, he said.

The committee nearly unanimously expressed its support when Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, asked if it would support a measure to return any money the department saves through efficiency measures to the department's budget.

The department plans to explore other cost-cutting options, including shutting down prison commissary stores and moving away from the use of private prisons.



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