JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall announced Friday that she’s closing part of a south Mississippi prison because the Corrections Department can’t hire enough guards at current low salaries to staff the institution.

Hall said in a statement that the department closed some units at South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville and moved 400 prisoners elsewhere. She also said it’s likely that she will close more units at Mississippi’s three state-run prisons

“This is a necessary measure to address public safety concerns,” she said. “We believe it is best for the safety of our staff and inmates. We also hope this is temporary because we want to fill all vacancies. We are aggressively recruiting.”

The inmates will be moved to the other two state prisons, 15 county-run regional jails and three private prisons statewide. Spokeswoman Grace Fisher said the inmates moved were mostly maximum security prisoners, what the state calls “close custody.”

Rep. Roun McNeal, a Leakesville Republican, said he opposes shifting prisoners to the state’s three privately run prisons, saying he thinks housing prisoners in public facilities is better financially for the state.

Budget documents filed with the Legislative Budget Office show continuing staff shortages at the Leakesville prison. Although the prison is budgeted for 435 employees, there were only 310 workers on average in the budget year ended June 30. The Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl also have vacancies, but their ratios of filled positions were higher last year. Fisher said positions are harder to fill in Leakesville, in a remote area of southeast Mississippi.

Hall said the starting yearly salary for correctional officers, just under $25,000, is too low to attract applicants to a sometimes-dangerous job, when other options pay more.

Hall said earlier this year that she would like to increase the starting salary to about $26,000 in the short term, ultimately raising it to between $28,000 and $30,000. That would get Mississippi off the bottom when it comes to prison guard pay. Federal statistics show the average prison guard nationwide made $46,750 in 2016, with those making less than $27,400 per year in the lowest 10 percent of salaries nationwide.

“The salary points are the biggest problem with being able to hire people,” McNeal said.

However, Fisher said the department has not asked for a pay increase for guards for the budget year beginning next July. She didn’t immediately respond Friday to a request to explain why not.


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