In a state where residents owe half-a-billion dollars to criminal courts, at least two people on probation or parole in Forrest County were trying to pay down their fines and fees each month.
But their debts didn’t budge. The money never showed up in their accounts at the courthouse.
That’s because their probation officer, Dendrick Hurd, had been allegedly instructing the probationers to purchase blank money orders to satisfy their monthly obligations. Hurd then allegedly wrote in his own name, taking the funds himself, the Office of the State Auditor announced in a press release Wednesday.
The alleged theft carries greater gravity for these victims because in Mississippi, judges sometimes lock people up until they pay their court-ordered debts.
Last year, Mississippi Today first reported that a guard at the Flowood Restitution Center, a jail where the state sends women for indefinite periods of time to work off their court debts, was able to steal more than $1,000 from inmates’ paychecks, according to a 2019 indictment.
In the restitution center program, Mississippi Department of Corrections seizes the inmates’ entire paychecks but doesn’t keep close track of how much they’ve earned, making it hard for them to figure out how long they need to work at mostly low-wage jobs to make enough money to earn their freedom.
State Auditor Shad White released a report less than a year after Mississippi Today’s investigation showing that the state actually jailed inmates longer than they should have due to the errors.
Agents arrested Hurd on two counts of embezzlement on Wednesday. He appeared to be a current employee; he’s wearing his Mississippi Department of Corrections polo in the mug shot. The state agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. The correctional officer faces up to 20 years in prison or $5,000 in fines for each charge.
This kind of incident isn’t happening in a vacuum, explained Brenda Scott, retired president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees, who has long advocated for pay raises among some of the lowest paid government employees in the country. While pay is better for probation officers compared to prison guards, these workers earn an average of about $36,500 in Mississippi, compared to almost $55,700 nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Scott has represented overworked and understaffed corrections employees and seen the outcomes of people working in stressful conditions for little pay, especially when their employer hasn’t implemented proper controls.
“You’re not getting paid decent and you see an opportunity, and if you know you can do stuff and get away with it, people are more likely to do that than if there was some kind of checks and balances in place to prevent that kind of stuff,” Scott said. “When you’ve got people that’s responsible for your finances understaffed and all that, stuff like this can go unnoticed.”
The latest arrest is just a window into the “widespread fraud, waste, and abuse” that has been reported across the agency, including in the auditor’s Dec. 16, 2020 compliance report.
And the bulk of the corruption is not happening on the frontlines, like the local probation office in this case.
According to the 2020 report, the culture is created at the top, such as head agency officials taking illegal buyouts in the hundreds of thousands. MDOC paid its former director Pelicia Hall an illegal buyout of $109,000 when she resigned at the end of 2019, only to months later take a job at the very company, Global Tel*Link Corp, her former agency contracted with for prison phone services.
“A lot of the spending seems to have benefitted people at the top at MDOC,” State Auditor Shad White said when releasing the report in 2020.
The auditor’s office has made no arrests in connection with these payments.
If you think you’ve been the victim of a scheme within MDOC and would like to share your story with Mississippi Today, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Article credit to Anna Wolfe of Mississippi Today --