JACKSON — About a half-dozen protesters disrupted a state budget hearing Monday by unfurling a banner accusing the Mississippi Department of Corrections of killing inmates.
One protester yelled: “MDOC kills!” Another yelled: “Fund restorative justice!”
“Sir, this is not the time nor the place. This is a budget hearing,” state House Speaker Philip Gunn said, gaveling for order.
The protesters continued yelling as state police officers escorted them out of the budget hearing in the Woolfolk state office building near the state Capitol.
Sixteen people died in Mississippi prisons in August.
Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall told lawmakers she thinks two of those were inmates were killed by other prisoners. She said many of those who died had chronic conditions, including heart problems or cancer.
“There’s nothing sinister about those deaths occurring,” Hall told members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
Gunn asked if 16 deaths for one month is normal. Hall said the August numbers were “abnormally high.” The Mississippi prison system had 78 deaths in 2017 and has had 57 or 58 so far this year, she said.
The 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee held public hearings Monday to ask questions of a few state agency directors about their requests for the 2020 budget year, which begins July 1.
Mississippi’s current budget is just over $6 billion. The budget office says that for first two months of the fiscal year, state revenue was $17.8 million, or 2.6 percent, higher than predicted.
State economist Darrin Webb told lawmakers Monday: “Mississippi’s economy continues to grow at a relatively slow pace.”
Hall asked lawmakers to fund pay raises for prison guards and their supervisors and to set aside about $22 million to renovate buildings that hold maximum-security prisoners at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. She said the buildings were not originally built for maximum security, and inmates are making holes in the cinderblock walls to hide contraband items.
“We are going to have to fix it and fix it the right way,” Hall said.
Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher told lawmakers that the Highway Patrol has a “critically low” number of troopers on the road.
“It presents a danger to the traveling public,” said Fisher, who is requesting money to train and hire more troopers.
Drew Snyder, director of the Division of Medicaid, said the health insurance program for low-income residents has taken dozens of steps to reduce expenses. Enrollment is declining, he said, partly because the economy is improving.
He said he does not anticipate requesting additional money for Medicaid during the current budget year, which ends June 30.
“The Division of Medicaid’s appetite for spending is not what it once was,” Snyder said.
Child Protection Services director Jess Dickinson said spending is staying steady. He said that in the past year, Mississippi has reduced the number of children in foster care from about 6,100 to 5,100 and increased the number of adoptions from about 320 to about 640.
Dickinson said the agency is providing in-home services for an increasing number of families, teaching parents about the responsibilities of taking care of children.
“These children are going to have a better life because we were able to provide in-home services,” Dickinson said.