Officials from the Mississippi Department of Corrections told the Senate Appropriations Committee Monday about their new salary plan for corrections officers and another to provide vocational training to inmates near release.
The department wants a large deficit appropriation ($30 million) to cover the rest of this fiscal year due to increased medical expenses for inmates and costs with a private prison contractor.
The department’s funding request is for $367 million for fiscal 2022, which begins July 1. That represents a $16.8 million increase from last year’s appropriation.
DOC officials also want tobacco products to be allowed to be sold in prisons, with the revenue used to offset costs of some new programs designed to reduce the rate at which inmates re-offend when released after the conclusion of their sentences.
“We’ve identified every problem we have with the Justice Department,” Corrections Commissioner Nathan “Burl” Cain told the appropriations subcommittee. Some of those problems are already being solved, including $170,000 for new laundry equipment and $600,000 for new air conditioning at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, which has been wracked with unrest in the past few years and a spate of inmate deaths and lockdowns.
His plans on doing that include a new pay plan for corrections officers and using $3 million in authority given to DOC to buy equipment for vocation training. This training for inmates provided by other inmates with those skills is designed to reduce recidivism and give them a chance to have a career once they’re released from DOC custody.
One of those vocational programs is to help inmates due for release the ability to earn their Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification, which requires two years of qualified work. Cain said there will be 1,500 slots for this training program annually. He also said the DOC will give inmates aptitude tests to find out what career best suits them and steer them toward training in that field.
His ambitious goal is to ensure that every inmate released from DOC custody has a certification in a vocation or trade.
“If you don’t have this certification, you’re going to get a job sweeping the floor,” Cain said. “If you have this certification, no matter what, you’ve got a job waiting on you. That’s how you slow down recidivism by having real successful re-entry program.
Cain also said the DOC is setting up a mental health dormitory at Parchman for inmates having mental health issues. Inmates who have been through a 12-step program will assist those struggling with mental issues and the program will be managed “from a distance” by the state Department of Mental Health.
To respond to issues at the prisons, Cain told the subcommittee that his department has set up three 20-man tactical teams of probation and parole agents, transported by used school buses bought by the DOC, and able to respond to any kind of uprising quickly. One team is in the northern part of the state, with other two located in the central and southern parts of the state.
Corrections officers’ starting pay under Cain’s plan would increase from $27,194 per year to $30,971. Once they served six months, the new corrections officers’ pay would increase to $31,971.
Deputy Commissioner Karei McDonald, who runs the Administration and Finance division with DOC, told the subcommittee that “we want to mitigate this DOJ thing and keep the Department of Justice from coming in here and spending our money for us.”
He said they can do that by filling the DOC’s vacant positions, which he said will happen if the money for the pay hike is appropriated.