Why did the Legislature make the job of new MDOC Commissioner Marshall Fisher so hard?
Following the indictment and resignation of the former commissioner, Gov. Phil Bryant in December appointed the formidable Fisher to head up the Mississippi Department of Corrections. “His first mission will be to detect and eliminate any criminal activity that occurs within our correctional facilities,” said Bryant.
In addition to the criminal activity of former commissioner Chris Epps and gang activity within the prisons, MDOC personnel have been accused of extortion, sexual solicitation, and theft.
Fisher told the governor’s Task Force on Contracting and Procurement in the Mississippi Department of Corrections his top priority would be to transform MDOC’s low-paid, poorly trained, correctional officers into a highly trained, professional force. He said it would take training and higher pay to remove the enticement of corruption from his workforce.
Starting pay for correctional officers at $22,005 is “well below what it should be,” he said. “We spend money getting people trained to work and then will lose them because they get higher paying jobs.” Last year 806 correctional officers had to be replaced out of a total of 1,700. “Parole officers are sworn peace officers who attend the same 10-week certification academy as Jackson police officers, yet their beginning salary ($25,718) is much lower,” he said, adding, “as investigators they should earn more than highway patrol officers ($37,000).”
To get anywhere with his transformation plan, Fisher said pay for correctional, probation and parole officers must be increased across the board. Also, because of the increased number of parolees resulting from passage of House Bill 585 last year, MDOC needs more parole officers.
Fisher took his transformation plan and salary realignment request to the Legislature, asking that his appropriation be increased by $11 million.
What did they do? They cut his appropriation by $12 million.
Undeterred, Fisher is forging ahead the hard way. He started massive shakedowns and lockdowns at state prisons, confiscating cell phones, contraband, and shanks, sending a clear message to prisoners and prison personnel alike that he won’t tolerate criminal activity.
To make up for budget cuts, he plans to stop state-county work programs at local jails in August to save $3 million annually, upsetting sheriffs around the state. Inmates will be transferred from programs in 30 counties to fill unused capacity at MDOC’s 17 community work centers.
He is also looking to save about $4 million and eliminate vestiges of corrupt contracts by rebidding contracts for medical care, commissary services, and facility management services.
He also wants better outcomes for prisoners, but that will take even more resources.
Newspaper owner and columnist Wyatt Emmerich has the best line on this: “We need a New Testament prison system, not an Old Testament one.” (See more at http://www.cdispatch.com/opinions/article.asp?aid=41051)
Commissioner Fisher has the experience, integrity, and drive to transform our prison system, if the Legislature will cooperate.