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Group recommends higher pay for Mississippi prison guards and more sunshine in state contracts

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JACKSON, Mississippi — A task force studying ways to improve Mississippi's prison system is recommending pay raises for guards.

Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher said Friday that low pay leads to high turnover because it's hard to find people willing to work in dangerous jobs for about the same wages that they'd earn in a fast-food restaurant. Some guards make about $22,000 a year.

"These people desperately need a pay raise," Fisher said.

The Department of Corrections is doubling the training for new prison guards, from four weeks to eight, and it is about to start conducting polygraph tests of people who apply for the jobs, Fisher said. Those are efforts to reduce problems of cellphones, drugs and other contraband being smuggled into prisons.

He cited the example of New York, where a prison employee is charged with helping two convicted killers escape.

"It's not matter of if, it's just when, we have something similar occur," Fisher said. "The fact that we don't pay people enough is a factor in that."

Gov. Phil Bryant appointed the task force of attorneys and others from the private sector to evaluate Mississippi's prison system after the former corrections commissioner, Christopher Epps, was indicted last year on federal corruption charges. Cecil McCrory, a former lawmaker who had business connections to the Department of Corrections, was also indicted in the corruption case. He and Epps have pleaded guilty, and they await sentencing.

The task force has been collecting information for about six months. On Friday, it released a draft of more than a dozen recommendations designed to make prisons more efficient.

"The task force believes that corruption at the lowest levels creates a culture that invites corruption throughout the MDOC system," the draft says in backing the recommended pay raise for guards.

The list includes ideas aimed at bringing more extensive public disclosure to the contract process for all state agencies. A final version of the list is scheduled for release June 26, after some revisions.

Among the recommendations are:

— Requiring each company that has contract with any state agency to disclose whether it used a consultant to help obtain the contract. If one is used, the name, services provided and fee should be disclosed.

— Requiring each company that receives a state contract to disclose the name and address of any person owning or controlling more than 5 percent of the business.

— Requiring the Department of Corrections to use a competitive bid process for all contracts.

— Giving a state board the power to oversee agencies' contracts that are funded by fees people pay for a specific product or government service.

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