At the risk of irking Mississippi’s schoolteachers, here is a question: If there is not enough money in the state treasury to both raise the pay of teachers and raise the pay of prison guards, which is more important right now? It’s the prison guards.

The inmate deaths, the rioting and the general anarchy that have taken over at several of the state’s prisons in recent days have spotlighted one of the major failings of the Legislature and outgoing Gov. Phil Bryant: their negligence of the critical shortage of prison guards.

Everyone understands there is a serious teacher shortage, too, and that makes it tough to fill classrooms with qualified, competent educators, especially in the more impoverished areas of the state. And more pay might help the situation.

But a bigger reason that teachers shun the public schools where the shortages are the worst is because they are administratively dysfunctional and lack parental support. These are problems that higher teacher salaries will not cure.

Higher salaries, though, could cure the prison guard problems.

The starting salary for a prison guard is $25,650, working year-round — about $10,000 less than the starting salary for a teacher who works nine months out of the year. For that kind of money,  who would want to be a prison guard — and risk your life and sanity — if you had any other options?

Raising prison guard pay is not a winning theme for politicians. Raising teacher pay is. That’s why you heard Delbert Hosemann, the new lieutenant governor, say during the 2019 campaign that his goal is to get Mississippi teacher pay above the Southeastern average. That’s why incoming Gov. Tate Reeves, when the race with Jim Hood appeared to tighten, suddenly became a champion of raising teacher salaries, pledging to add another $4,300 over four years to the $1,500 the Legislature enacted in 2019.

The teacher shortage, though, pales in comparison to the prison guard shortage. The prisons are operating with roughly half as many guards as they should have. Because of the low salaries and the severe staffing crunch, the Mississippi Department of Corrections isn’t too choosy either about whom it hires, putting people in guard uniform who might be as crooked as the inmates they are supposed to be managing. It is a recipe for just the type of chaos that’s presently occurring.

Maybe the state’s economy is doing well enough for Reeves and Hoseman to keep their promises to teachers while raising the salary for prison guards to a figure that will improve both their quantity and quality. More likely, though, it’s not.

There most likely will be choices to make. Teachers may have to be willing to accept less of a raise so that prison guards can get more of one.

That doesn’t sound very progressive. Theoretically, higher teacher pay will turn into a higher caliber of instruction, which will produce better education outcomes, which will result in a smaller prison population, which will reduce the demand for prison guards. But that’s a long-term proposition.

The short-term reality is we have a humongous problem in our prisons — the scope of which most of the public doesn’t fully grasp because the Department of Corrections is more concerned with covering its backside than letting the truth come out.

But if lawmakers were to spend a week at Parchman and a week at a public school, it would become obvious to them which situation needs to be addressed first.

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