The State of Mississippi, which has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country, is in desperate need of quality prison guards. But it can’t seem to pay for them.
The salaries are the lowest in the nation, at $24,670 a year, nearly $4,000 less than the state's overall median. Guards get only four weeks of training, compared with 16 weeks in Michigan and 12 months in New York. The combination ends up making corrections officers particularly susceptible to trafficking in contraband — and relying on violence, says Jody Owens, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center. And the same conditions have led to a stunningly high turnover rate: Last year alone, more than half of them (806 officers) quit.
"We know that sales of contraband are a supplementation of income for these officers,” Owens says. “We know that. And it is almost as self-evident that poor recruitment and training, and high attrition, create a situation in these facilities where the guards are always cycling through, don’t know how to exert control but through violence, and aren’t paid enough to care.”
Last month, the Department of Justice reported that two jails in Hinds County had failed to protect inmates from violence, and that poorly trained staff relied too heavily on lockdowns. In March, over 150 shanks were found during raids of facilities around the state. Last year, conditions for mentally-ill prisoners at one for-profit prison were called “barbaric” in a lawsuit; the year before that, a for-profit prison for juveniles was named one of the “10 Worst in America.” Since 2010, 63 cases have been opened against officers for smuggling contraband.
"It's like a game of whack-a-mole," says Owens of all the litigation.
But the new commissioner of the state’s Department of Corrections, Marshall Fisher, who replaced the disgraced Christopher Epps back in December, says he is open to paying and adequately preparing the guards. “If I could do what I wanted, I’d increase [CO] salaries by 20 percent” and double the number of weeks they spend in training, he says. “We set them up for failure if we don’t give them the skills, and the temptations are tremendous to bring in contraband — cell phones, batteries, dope.”
Earlier this year, Commissioner Fisher asked legislators for an $8.1 million increase in funding (from $382.4 million to $390.5 million), mainly to give raises to correctional officers. This was the same Republican legislature that had bucked its tough-on-crime past, acknowledged the crisis in Mississippi’s prisons, and embraced the mantra of “reform” with the passage, last year, of a piece of model legislation that would replace incarceration with probation, reentry programming, and other “evidence-based” alternatives.
But those solutions were free of cost and even saved money by reducing the number of beds in penitentiaries around the state.
When it came time to spend money to solve a problem — poor training, rampant corruption, and high attrition among corrections officers — many legislators balked. After a last-minute standoff, they not only blocked the commissioner’s requested funds, but they also cut the corrections budget for next year by $8.4 million.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who as the leader of the Senate participated in the budget discussions himself, says that paying more for better corrections officers simply was not necessary.
Due to the reforms in H.B. 585, he says, the “reduction in the population [of the state’s prisons] is expected to continue, which means that the [budget] for next year will go even further.”
“I will not support any tax increase,” he adds, “to fund a system that is seeing a shrinking population.”
Rep. Herb Frierson, the chairman of the House appropriations committee, had wanted to take the savings from the reform bill and keep it in the budget for corrections, to “double up on our investment and actually get ahead of these conditions in our prisons.” But he ultimately caved, he says, because “it’s an election year and there’s a price to be paid in Mississippi politics for saying we’ve got to use more funds.”
With a smaller budget taking effect in July, Commissioner Fisher will be able to raise CO salaries only if he makes cuts elsewhere, as he has begun to do by ending work programs for prisoners and rebidding contracts for medical and commissary services.
Meanwhile, it falls to the Justice Department, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other external agencies to keep scrutinizing the state’s prisons for the consequences of poor CO performance.
“Either the state will treat this more urgently,” says Owens, “or we’ll hold them accountable. Only under the threat of a lawsuit, court order, or consent decree have the politicians here shown any willingness to spend actual resources to support these officers and in so doing change the outlook for the prisons they are responsible for.”
Corrections officer pay is so low in a place like Mississippi for a number of reasons.
For one, in the Deep South and other right-to-work states, where officers’ ability to unionize is limited, their relative bargaining power1 is less than that of other state employees.
Geert Dhondt, a labor economist at John Jay College who has studied police and CO wages, notes that “public opinion is very important in determining the salaries of public employees, because the public is the employer. And whereas teachers can win us over because they’re there for our precious kids, and the police2 can (and do) convincingly make the case that they’re protecting ‘us’ from ‘them,’ COs are out of sight. The best they can say is they’re doing the dirty work that the rest of us don’t like to face, and keeping criminals — who are despised — safe from one another.”
But as with most things in Mississippi, history and taxes are most crucial to understanding what guards are up against now.
Wealthy, landowning elites in the state “were always dead-set against any type of property taxes” to pay for public institutions3 and services, says James Cobb, a historian of the Mississippi Delta, “and convinced that the sales tax would be the only one that blacks paid.”
Mississippi soon became the first state with a sales tax. To this day, it has some of the lowest individual and corporate income taxes of any state — the highest bracket pays only 5 percent — and the sales tax must fund just about everything, including the salaries of public employees.
But any sales tax is subject to the whims of the economy, which in Mississippi is always on the brink.
“In that kind of tax climate,” says Cobb, “budget increases for the salaries of state employees are rarely in order.”
Mark Anthony, a former CO who is now a professor of criminal justice at Jackson State University, knows firsthand the effects of his state’s inability to pay for the reforms it aspires to. “If you were making what I was making as an officer,” he says, “after you pay mortgage, utilities, car insurance” and for the gas to get back and forth to remote prisons in a state with zero public transportation, “you’re already broke after the fifth of the month.”
“A majority of us,” he says, had to “have second jobs.”
But where CO pay falls short, the sale of contraband often picks up the tab. Says Anthony, “Inmates come to you with all kinds of goodies — money, sex, whatever.” In return, officers smuggle in cell phones (which go for $800 each), chargers ($250), and a cannabis-substitute nicknamed “Spice.”
Yet legislators who have otherwise embraced the rhetoric of reform have largely made excuses when it comes to actually paying for it, including in the form of higher salaries and better training for the people who run prisons.
Reeves, the lieutenant governor, says that although he and the Senate refused to provide the budget that Commissioner Fisher requested, they did “temporarily remove Personnel Board regulations” such that Fisher “was given the ability to manage his agency and staffing needs.”
Frierson, the appropriations committee chairman in the House, makes the case that there wasn’t any money anyway, "because we’re using all our money now to recover from the recession. We have a disproportionate number of people below the poverty line, in Mississippi, which absorbs a lot of our funds.”
But in Mississippi, as anywhere else, it ultimately comes down to priorities. John Bruce, a professor of political science at the University of Mississippi, says that “improving prisons is an unpopular and expensive” item on the agenda, for politicians among whom “spending money is generally frowned upon.” Last year’s reforms, he says, were “driven by the expense [issue], not over any real concern about inmates."
As for Fisher, he is well aware that in Mississippi, there is only a certain amount of money to go around for desired reforms. He says he is “used to trying to be as frugal as possible,” while providing for his employees as best he can.
Fisher is glad that legislators around the South are increasingly talking about “doing a better job at rehabilitating” inmates, by passing bills like H.B. 585 that claim to house fewer people in safer environments with well-paid and trained staff. But, he says, “It’s one thing to talk about it, and another to put their money where their mouth is.”