Corrections system needs more money

Published 3:06 pm Thursday, September 28, 2006

Mississippi’s prison system is seeking nearly a 5 percent increase in its budget next year, partly to hire more employees to handle an expected increase in the inmate population.

Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps told lawmakers Wednesday many inmates are becoming more challenging to control.

“Every year, they get more meaner and violent and disrespectful,” said Epps, who has worked in the prison system for 25 years.

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House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said he likes one form of discipline he has heard about. Prison guards can take an inmate’s meal and run it through a blender instead of giving the inmate solid food.

“That was pretty impressive. I kind of liked it,” Stringer told Epps.

The commissioner said the prisons are required to give inmates three meals a day with a total of 2,900 calories. He said the food can be put in a blender and still meet the requirements.

“We only do it when they throw food on the staff,” Epps said.

The Department of Correction’s budget for the current year is $306.4 million, and the department is seeking $321.3 million for the year that starts next July 1.

The 14-member Budget Committee on Thursday wraps up eight days of public hearings to gather spending requests from state agencies.

Gov. Haley Barbour will make his own budget recommendations in November, and the Budget Committee will release its overall spending plan before the legislative session starts in January. All 122 members of the House and 52 members of the Senate will get to vote on a final budget by early April.

Epps told lawmakers that the state could have significant savings in the corrections budget if more emphasis were put on the creation of drug courts, where people generally undergo treatment rather than face incarceration.

He said a drug court system could operate for about $5,000 a year in administrative costs to hire employees and provide testing of people going through the system.

Epps said even if the state can’t provide extra money, there are other incentives that could be given to judges for operating drug courts. He said, for example, that lawmakers could bring the judges to the Capitol and pass a resolution to commend the drug courts’ work.

“Everybody I know likes a pat on the back or accolades,” Epps said.