- Associated Press - Friday, February 5, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Budget problems are forcing the Mississippi Department of Corrections to cut the state inmate population at county regional jails.

The agency, in a news release, said it began Friday removing 602 inmates from 13 of the 15 regional jails. Regional facilities receive $29.74 per inmate, per day. MDOC is contractually required to provide 80 percent occupancy.

Department Commissioner Marshall Fisher said the department must reduce spending by $5 million to comply with Gov. Phil Bryant’s recent order for agencies to cut 1.5 percent of its budget for the last half of the fiscal year ending June 30.

“We have places to put the inmates that have been housed above what the contracts require, and a significant amount of money will be reinvested in the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” Commissioner Marshall Fisher said. “We are determined to live within our budget.”

Fisher ended the Joint State County Work Program last August, saying moving the 675 inmates in that program into the department’s own community work centers could save $3.2 million.

Yalobusha County planned to use state prisoners in that program to cut grass at county-owned buildings and pick up litter. The sheriff also 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.

Counties are allowed to keep the inmates in work programs but the MDOC will not reimburse them for expenses related to housing, education and alcohol and drug treatment. MDOC still will provide and pay for medical care.

MDOC has also closed at least two of its own community work centers.

Given the agency’s challenges - low pay, high turnover, critical staff shortages, and aging facilities - Fisher said he’s constantly re-evaluating the department’s expenditures.

“Hard choices are just as necessary this year as they were last year when I became corrections commissioner,” Fisher said. “For example, I don’t like having to close community work centers, but we simply don’t have the staff to keep some of them operating. Until we improve the pay of corrections officers, staffing will continue to be a critical issue.”

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