- Associated Press - Monday, December 8, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The temporary head of Mississippi’s prison system told lawmakers Monday that he’s trying to improve conditions at South Mississippi Correctional Institution, where workers have complained about long hours and low pay and have expressed concerns about their own safety because of short staffing.

Interim Corrections Commissioner Rick McCarty told the House Corrections Committee that he will ask the Legislature during the 2015 session to consider increasing the salaries for guards, some of whom make about $22,000 a year.

Rep. Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, is an attorney who lives and works near the south Mississippi prison. He said prison guards tell him they often get stuck working significantly longer than eight hours per shift, and that’s a burden as they try to take care of their families. He said he has been told about guards who have been forced to work double and triple shifts with little or no advance notice.

“I’ve had several families tell me they’re just working for the insurance,” DeBar said after the committee meeting.

DeBar said guards also are concerned about understaffing at the prison, where guards were attacked during two disturbances in September. In the first, the Department of Corrections said an inmate struck a guard with a food tray and the guard fell and hit his head. He was hospitalized.

In the second, seven guards were assaulted after a shakedown in another part of the prison. Those guards were treated and released from a hospital.

Rep. Doug McLeod, R-Lucedale, said he heard from a constituent who worked a 100-hour week without being paid overtime. He said she was unable to leave to pick up her child from daycare.

“I still can’t understand how somebody could work 100 hours in a week and still get paid for 40 hours,” McLeod said.

McCarty said the prison is operating within labor laws in scheduling guards and keeping them on duty, as needed. He said the Department of Corrections is trying to hire more guards at South Mississippi Correctional Institution, but he acknowledged it’s difficult to recruit people.

“It stems from, well, they talk to a friend,” McCarty said. In those conversations, he said potential recruits hear, “number one, it’s low pay. Number two, they’re not crazy about the working conditions.”

Gov. Phil Bryant named McCarty as interim commissioner in early November after Chris Epps, who had been commissioner for 12 years, was indicted on federal corruption charges, along with former state Rep. Cecil McCrory, a businessman whose clients had contracts with the Department of Corrections. Epps and McCrory have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled for trial in early January.

McCarty previously was a deputy corrections commissioner in charge of finances.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .


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