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Law Says Next State Corrections Commissioner Not Required to Have Experience

By Jerry Mitchell
Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

Mississippi’s new corrections commissioner will inherit the state’s worst prison crisis in half a century history, but, thanks to state law, no corrections experience is required.

Candidates are required to have a bachelor’s degree and those with “excellent leadership skills and a proven ability to reform … a governmental agency will be given the upmost consideration,” according to a Feb. 5 news release from Gov. Tate Reeves’ office.

Jackson lawyer Ron Welch, who represented Mississippi inmates for nearly four decades, responded that putting “someone in charge of the Corrections Department without substantial experience is like putting a plumber in charge of an emergency room at the hospital.”

Some may presume all that is involved with corrections is locking inmates up and going home for supper, but that is no longer the case, he said. “It’s so specialized now, especially in dealing with gangs.”

The Justice Department is now investigating brutal violence and horrific conditions inside four Mississippi prisons, citing reports by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, ProPublica, the Marshall Project and others.

The state emerged less than a decade earlier from years of federal oversight from the last prison crisis.

Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs Jr., who is heading the governor’s search committee for a new corrections commissioner, said the reason no corrections experience has been demanded is because state law requires no such experience.

Reeves’ Feb. 5 news release said it required all candidates to submit resumes by Feb. 29.

No matter whom Reeves chooses, the Senate must still approve that candidate.

Can’t afford to waste years ‘bringing someone up to speed’

Flaggs praised Reeves’ leadership, saying he is “more passionate about it than most folks. He wants the best commissioner.”

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Hattiesburg, supports lowering the qualifications to eliminate the need for a bachelor’s degree. He told Mississippi Public Radio he wanted to remove any barriers to Reeves hiring the person the governor thinks could do the best job.

Flaggs said the search committee has one candidate for commissioner “who was just impeccable, but he didn’t have his (bachelor’s) degree.”

In order to accept him as a candidate, the law would have to be changed, he said.

But doing so, he said, “would look like we’re lowering the standard.”

Prison consultant Dan Pacholke of Seattle said if he were heading up a national search, he would hire a firm “that specializes in recruiting executives and I would seek out highly qualified candidates with deep correctional experience. It’s not uncommon at all to use head hunters for this type of recruitment.”

Flaggs, who during a long legislative career had once chaired the House committee overseeing the Mississippi Department of Corrections, said he anticipates the new commissioner will have corrections experience, despite the state law failing to demand it. “We’re expecting far more (experience) because of the crisis.”

Each of the seven members of the governor’s search committee is expected to make five top choices, he said. “That will be 35. Then we’ll narrow it down to five.”

He said a number of good candidates have already emerged for the $133,000-a-year job.

One candidate has even written books about corrections systems and worked “on a prison crisis like ours,” he said.

If the top candidate for corrections commissioner requires a higher salary, Flaggs said the Legislature would be asked to approve that amount.

Pacholke, who once headed the prison system in the state of Washington, said Mississippi “needs a commissioner that deeply understands good correctional operations and is versed in the politics of what it takes to secure new resources. … You really can’t afford to waste a few years trying to get someone up to speed.”

Flaggs said he wants to see a passionate leader for the Corrections Department, concerned about the families whose loved ones are in prison. He said he would like to see a reentry program for inmates at the now-closed Walnut Grove Correctional Facility. His idea is at odds with that of Reeves, who said the former Leake County private prison is a viable alternative for housing the maximum-security inmates from Unit 29 at Mississippi State Penitentiary.

The past two commissioners, Marshall Fisher and Pelicia Hall, have lacked significant corrections experience.

In late 2014, Marshall Fisher, who was heading the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, replaced Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps, who pleaded guilty in February 2015 to corruption charges and is now serving a nearly 20-year sentence.

Fisher had worked as a probation and parole officer but otherwise lacked corrections experience.

Pelicia Hall, who had previously represented the Corrections Department, served by his side and became commissioner after Fisher left.

In a 2019 interview with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, ProPublica and InvestigateTV, Hall, the first African-American woman to serve in the position, thanked Bryant for making her a nontraditional pick.

“I can lead with empathy, but also with a manner that will best serve the public,” she said, “not just for one segment of the population, but for all segments.”

‘We want to ask for targeted investment’

When then-Gov. Phil Bryant signed prison reform legislation into law in 2014, the measure drew widespread praise from conservatives and liberals alike because it promised to reduce the prison population, save millions and reinvest some of the money into programs for offenders.

Instead, all of those savings went into the state’s coffers, helping to pay for huge corporate tax cuts at a time the state was struggling to meet revenue estimates.

While serving eight years as lieutenant governor, Reeves oversaw a total of $215 million in budget cuts to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

For fiscal 2020, the department sought $22 million to repair maximum-security Unit 29 inside Mississippi’s notorious Parchman prison. The Legislature rejected that request.

For fiscal 2021, MDOC officials asked for $78 million in additional funding — nearly a third of it to renovate Unit 29, describing it as “unsafe for staff and inmates.” Nearly $50 million of that would go for pay raises for correctional officers.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which sets spending priorities for the state, is recommending that representatives reject that request and cut the corrections budget by $8.3 million.

Reeves is asking lawmakers to keep MDOC’s budget the same, despite past cuts, current woes and his promise that correctional officers be “compensated fairly.”

His proposed budget says “more investment” may be necessary in the future, but “we do not want to blindly request an increase to achieve a vague ambition. We want to ask for targeted investment.”

Flaggs said he believes this is a good strategy, saying Reeves “is not going to add funding until he knows they need the money.”

Whoever takes over Mississippi’s prison system will face a host of woes.

For starters, Mississippi has a 50 percent vacancy rate for its correctional officers — a rate unlikely to improve unless the state Legislature approves an increase in the current $25,650 annual starting salary that qualifies officers and their families for food stamps

The average salary for a correctional officer in the U.S. is $49,300 a year.

Flaggs acknowledged that correctional officers are overwhelmed by the ratio of inmates to officers that some officers say runs as high as 128 to 1 a shift at Parchman – the site of at least 16 violent deaths since April.

Experts say the low pay contributes to corruption among officers.

Flaggs said a corrupt officer will tell other officers to “let Johnny inside with the red car and don’t search him,” contributing to continuing problems with drugs and other contraband.

Flaggs would like to see the governor call a special session within the current legislative session. “When you have a crisis,” he said, “you want a cure as soon as you can.”

Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to inform, educate and empower Mississippians in their communities through the use of investigative journalism. 

Email him at Jerry.Mitchell.MCIR@gmail.com and follow him on Facebook at @JerryMitchellReporter and on Twitter at @jmitchellnews.

The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting continues to examine the state’s corrections system. We want to know what’s really happening behind the walls of Mississippi’s prisons. You can share your tips and your stories by emailing us at Jerry.Mitchell.MCIR@gmail.com.

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