According to an audit released December 17 by the state auditor’s office, the Mississippi Department of Corrections spent taxpayer funds on a bounce house, massage chairs, Himalayan salt lamps, and impermissible comp time buybacks from 2017 to 2019.
State Auditor Shad White’s office said the audit, which was requested by current leadership at the MDOC and by Gov. Tate Reeves, found that many accounting records were burned or destroyed by previous leadership from July 1, 2017 to December 31, 2019. That was the date when then-commissioner Pelicia Hall resigned.
At least 97 inmates according to the Associated Press have died in Mississippi’s prisons since late last year. The U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into the state’s prison system in February.
Auditors also found that MDOC personnel failed to acknowledge and implement the corrective active plan after a 2018 audit performed by White’s office.
Hall is now the senior vice president of reentry at Global Tel*Link (GTL), which has a 2018 contract from the MDOC to provide inmate phone services.
MDOC personnel told auditors that records related to procurement cards, purchasing, cash receipts and other vital financial records were destroyed accidently in the process of a move to a new office. They said some records were marked for burning, but other public records accidently were transferred to a truck that was transporting records to be destroyed.
Another issue with Hall’s administration at MDOC was the administration of lump sums paid to buy back comp time, where the employee receives money in lieu of time off. While all MDOC staff received the opportunity to have their comp time bought out, Hall received $109,646 in buyout payments and the former deputy commissioner Jerry Williams (who retired on January 15) received $240,097 in buyouts, including a lump sum of $160,000 in July 2017.
One of the concerns raised in the audit was for Hall and Williams and their benefits from the Mississippi Public Retirement System. Retirees receive benefits based on their highest four earning years and the report said that the comp time payments were included in that figure, resulting in the pair receiving artificially inflated annual pension benefits.
According to the audit, Hall received nearly $9,000 in travel reimbursements for travel outside the country and 14 instances of excessive travel reimbursements worth more than $18,500 when the travel wasn’t related to her job responsibilities, including travel to various bar associations, trial settlement and judge conferences.
The report said the matters have been referred to the various investigative divisions at the auditor’s office. The auditor also recommends PERS perform a forensic audit of personnel who received illegal payments to adjust the maximum benefit allowed through the pension system and attempt to recover these illegal payments.
The audit also found $47,321 in travel payments to Parole Board member Betty Lou Jones for hotels, meals and other travel expenses to her work site in Jackson, which is not permissible under state law.
According to the audit, the agency spent more than $41,000 for the staff’s wellness program. The biggest line item was more than $17,500 spent on 20 massage chairs for agency personnel meditation rooms. Officials also spent more than $18,000 for decorative lamps, rugs, art, signs, Himalayan salt lamps, CDs and other items.
The agency also spent nearly $2,500 on a family wellness day that included a bounce house and prizes and more than $11,850 on award and employee luncheons that included gifts to employees.
This isn’t the first time that MDOC has been under investigation.
Former MDOC Commissioner Chris Epps resigned in 2014 and was indicted on charges of accepting $1.4 million bribes and kickbacks from contractors with the agency. He was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.
Then-Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hall to replace him. She told the Legislature in 2019 that she wanted limits on public records requests for MDOC to prevent “fishing expeditions.” She resigned on December 31 and Reeves replaced her with former Louisiana prison official Nathan Burl Cain after a nationwide search in March.
Cain’s office responded to the audit with a corrective action plan and said in its response that it has already corrected many of the findings in the report.