Locked Down: Understaffing in nation's prisons leads to dangerous felons escaping

LEAKESVILLE, Miss. - This story was produced in partnership with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. InvestigateTV is the video partner for this story.

This drone photo captures the view of South Mississippi Correctional Institution from above. The facility sits on 360 acres and has a maximum of 3,082 beds. (InvestigateTV)

Understaffing in our nation's prisons has lead to attacks on correctional officers, the beating of inmates, and dangerous felons escaping, as Russell Turner knows all too well.

As he pulled up his lengthy driveway one afternoon, Russell Turner spotted a stranger, sitting inches from his door. The man begged for a ride to the hospital.

"I knew something off with the story, but I really just wanted the guy away from my house," Turner said.

Turner invited the stranger into his car. With one hand on his hidden gun, Turner remained cautious, but also unaware that stranger was a criminal.

"He was a tough hombre," Turner said.

Turner picked up Michael Wilson, known as Pretty Boy Floyd, a twice-convicted killer.

Turner lives about two miles from the South Mississippi Correctional Institution. That afternoon, Wilson scaled the prison's two fences and escaped. Police caught him 60 miles south of the prison two days later.

"He got two more people to give him rides in this community. Made his way all way to the Gulf Coast, which is an hour and a half from here, and was employed with paint contractor by the weekend," Turner said.

Turner owns the county's newspaper. His paper has covered the prison since it opened in 1990. He blames the escape on a serious manpower shortage at the prison.

"It's beyond critical. I've used the expression, and some of my friends have too, is the place has become a powder keg, really," Turner said.

According to the Bureau of Prisons, every federal prison has 9.3 inmates per correctional officer.

The Justice Department recently intervened in Alabama, concluding severe understaffing exposed inmates to substantial risk of serious harm. Alabama currently has 9.9 inmates per correctional officer.

But the prison up the road from Russell Turner's house has a whopping 23 inmates for every officer.

Mississippi's corrections commissioner, Pelecia Hall, blames low salaries. The state starts officers at around 12 dollars an hour. At the start of the year, nearly half the jobs at the prison were vacant.

"People can't afford to live on $24,900," Hall said.

Low salaries and staffing shortage are not just Mississippi problems. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' most recent data, many states on average pay their officers less than 20 dollars an hour. From Idaho to Alabama, Indiana to Louisiana, North Carolina to Missouri, a total of 20 states.

Officials in South Carolina and Texas call the pay and understaffing serious.

"Over the past 12 months, we have seen an increase in the number of correctional officer vacancies to the tune of over 3,600 vacancies at this time," Brian Collier with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said.

Alabama's problems might lead to federal intervention. In Iowa, officials there say understaffing led to a nurse being attacked and the problems go back years.

The staffing issues allowed an inmate to access a guard booth and take a picture with a phone he had inside South Mississippi Correctional Institution. He says it shows the guard booth empty, proof of how serious, how dire the understaffing is.

Because as Russell Turner found out, if the nationwide problem isn't fixed, the danger inside a prison like this can show up on your front step.

"I think it's pretty obvious the inmates (are running the prison). The gangs. It's hard for me to sit here and wrap my head around it. But that's the truth. Anybody that works out there will tell you that. The day that the inmates decide that they want to take over facility for any reason, I'm convinced they can. And I don't know where the help would come from," Turner said.