- Associated Press - Friday, May 1, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi sheriffs say they are dismayed and puzzled by Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher’s decision to abolish a program that sends inmates to 30 county jails.

Fisher, in letters sent to sheriffs Thursday, wrote that he can save $3.2 million by moving the 675 inmates currently in the Joint State County Work Program into the department’s own community work centers. The programs will end Aug. 1.

Inmates in the county programs perform free labor for county and city governments, working on garbage trucks, picking up roadside litter and cleaning county buildings. Fisher said inmates can keep working, but sheriffs question whether that will be possible because some counties with work programs are distant from state work centers. Some counties also constructed jails counting on state payments for such inmates to cover part of the cost.

“It’s going to really hurt,” Monroe County Sheriff Cecil Cantrell said Friday.

The decision could be an irritant as the governor and all sheriffs, county supervisors and legislators are up for election this November. Sheriffs are lobbying Gov. Phil Bryant to reverse the move.

The corrections commissioner wrote that he was making the move because lawmakers appropriated $362 million for the department’s operations in the year beginning July 1, compared to the $379.9 million that budget writers had originally projected. But he said he would have done it, anyway.

“Had the Legislature seen fit to appropriate MDOC’s full request and added $10 million in discretionary funds, we would still propose eliminating the (program) as it is simply not an efficient use of taxpayers’ money, with public safety being of utmost concern,” Fisher wrote.

Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing and others question that math. Counties receive $20.25 a day to hold inmates, plus medical payments for sick inmates. In 2014, MDOC published information showing it cost $43.43 per day to hold inmates in community work centers.

“To us, it looks like it’s going to cost him more,” Rushing said.

However, corrections spokeswoman Grace Simmons Fisher said the current cost is $33.48 a day, and will fall to $22.04 a day after fixed costs of utilities and staff are spread over more inmates.

Still, some sheriffs suggested the state would be better off to close its own centers and shift inmates to the counties.

“It just seems to me they could close these CWCs down and move them to the counties and help the counties and help the state,” said Yalobusha Sheriff Lance Humphreys.

Yalobusha County is weeks away from opening a new jail, including a $100,000 building meant to hold up to 20 work program prisoners.

“They poured the sidewalk today,” Humphreys said.

Yalobusha County planned to use prisoners to cut grass at county-owned buildings and pick up litter. The sheriff said the state inmates would have helped cover the cost of the jail. Many counties built larger jails when Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps started the program to relieve crowding in state prisons. Inmate counts are falling after legislators changed laws in 2014 to shorten sentences for some convicts.

Spokeswoman Fisher, unrelated to the corrections commissioner, said that even though lawmakers this year granted the department permission to lay off people without going through civil service procedures, officials don’t want to lay off community work center employees.

“If we were to close the CWCs, we’d have to (lay off) 200 people, and that’s not going to happen,” she said.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy

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