FIRST ALERT INVESTIGATION: Prison staffing crisis costing taxpayers millions
MADISON, Wis. (WBAY) - Crisis. That’s the word Republicans and Democrats use to describe a drastic shortage of correction officers in Wisconsin’s prisons.
More than six institutions are missing at least one quarter of their workforce. Two prisons have barely half the staff they need.
It’s costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in overtime and forcing the Department of Corrections to find new ways to recruit and retain employees.
There’s bipartisan agreement that the state’s correctional system is in trouble.
STATE REP. DAVE STEFFEN (R-Howard): “It is at a crisis level.”
STATE REP. GORDON HINTZ (D-Oshkosh): “And I think we’re at crisis right now.”
Across Wisconsin, vacancy rates among correctional officers and sergeants are soaring to levels unseen pre-pandemic.
“Vacancies at our agency are really high,” said Secretary Kevin Carr, Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
Green Bay Correction Institution has 51 officer openings and is considered among the most-staffed maximum security prisons in the state. It has a 22 percent vacancy rate.
- Waupun Correctional Institution: 47 percent vacancy rate.
- Columbia Correctional Institution: 46 percent vacancy rate.
- Wisconsin Secure Program Facility: 38 percent vacancy rate.
- Dodge Correction Institution: 35 percent vacancy rate.
- Taycheedah Correctional Institution: 32 percent vacancy rate.
- Oshkosh Correctional Institution: 25 percent vacancy rate.
- Green Bay Correctional Institution: 22 percent vacancy rate.
- DOC STAFFING AND VACANCY DASHBOARDS: https://doc.wi.gov/Pages/DataResearch/StaffingandVacancyDashboards.aspx
“There’s just low pay, tough working conditions, dangerous work, lots of overtime, impact on quality of life for the people that work in corrections,” says Carr.
HOW DOC IS ADDRESSING THE SHORTAGES
First Alert Investigation sat down with DOC Secretary Kevin Carr to ask what the agency is doing to address the massive shortages.
SARAH THOMSEN: “How do you make it attractive?”
SEC. CARR: “One of the things we’re doing is we’re offering a $2,000 signing bonus.” (*The bonus is approved for new correctional officer hires at any institution at or above a 20 percent vacancy rate. Currently, there are 15.)
The DOC is looking at unconventional ways for recruiting. A giant “now hiring” flag flies outside GBCI. The DOC is airing radio and television ads, using social media and attending job fairs. The agency is trying to change state law to allow them to use billboards. The DOC is the only state agency not allowed to recruit via billboard.
“The only thing that we haven’t done, and we have no control over, is the rate of compensation, and that’s where the legislature comes in,” says Carr.
The DOC is banking on raising pay significant--up to an additional $12 per hour for some employees.
There are two proposals in Madison. They have yet to see action in the legislature.
The first proposal is a compensation plan to increase starting wages for officers by 47 cents.
The proposal calls for temporarily increasing pay $5 an hour for correctional officers and sergeants at adult prisons with combined vacancy rates of 40 percent or higher. The pay raise would expire when vacancy rates drop below 40 percent for six consecutive months.
The proposal includes a two percent general wage adjustment for all employees, once in 2022 and again in 2023.
The Joint Committee on Employment Relations would have to hold a hearing to consider the proposal.
The second proposal is a “companion bill” and requires passage of the first proposal.
The companion bill calls for a $5 pay increase for almost all officers, sergeants and youth counselors. It includes a permanent $2 add-on for security staff at maximum security prisons. That means workers at GBCI could get an additional $7 per hour.
COST TO THE TAXPAYER
Pay increases for more than 4,600 officers and sergeants statewide may sound like a lot of money, but we discovered the DOC has paid out $62,600,294 for 1,977,122 hours of overtime over the last two fiscal years, running summer to summer.
The DOC did not provide overtime data collected since July of this year.
SARAH THOMSEN: “Do you think you can get people without that increase?”
SEC. CARR: “Well it’s awful tough, OK. In some of our outlying areas, we’re competing with local businesses like Kwik Trip and Wal-Mart where they’re giving signing bonuses and those starting wages are in the low to mid-20s. Why would you accept a job at the Department of Corrections for $19 an hour when you could work at Wal-Mart for $23 an hour?”
Reps. Hintz represents Oshkosh and Steffen represents Green Bay. These communities have prisons with serious staff shortages.
HINTZ: “I’m incredibly concerned as everybody really should be in Wisconsin.”
STEFFEN: “Maybe you can get away with half staff level at McDonald’s, but you can’t at a maximum security prison.”
It’s up to the legislature to pass the proposed wage increases in the companion bill.
“Yes. I would absolutely support it, and again, it would have to be a sunset, temporary type thing,” says Steffen. “This is really a Band-Aid, you know, hold back the flood type situation, and emergency type situation that we need to address.”
Hintz says, “I support, you know, the the two percent and two percent in getting that approved as quickly as possible. I certainly support getting anything done that can fill the gap in the short term. If that’s the incentives that it takes to get people to work in these positions, then I think we’re seriously going to have to look at it.”
The lawmakers agree it would be a temporary fix, but disagree on a long-term solution.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Hintz says the criminal justice system needs to be reimagined to look at other ways to ensure public safety and justice.
Steffen is pushing for the decommissioning of GBCI and construction of a new state-of-the-art facility that could operate with fewer staff.
First Alert Investigation found a detailed master facilities plan. The three-year independent study was submitted to the Department of Administration late in 2020.
“Evaluation and planning for eventual replacement of both Green Bay and Waupun are needed,” the study says.
Of GBCI the study found, “the current generation may not be looking at corrections as a career.”
“Staffing shortages are being addressed by significant overtime hours,” the study reads.
Carr says, “High vacancy rates directly correlate to safety issues and programmatic issues in our facilities.”
In the meantime, the DOC is closing an entire cell hall at Waupun and creating supplemental staffing.
About 230 workers from 14 more well-staffed prisons have volunteered or been forced to rotate two-week stints at Waupun Correction to fill major gaps. In January, they’ll start the same plan at Columbia Correctional. (*There are 14 DOC institutions/centers with lower vacancy rates that have staff helping out. Some are sending one staff member per pay period, some are sending three per pay period. GBCI is among those sending one. )
Correctional officers spoke with First Alert Investigation off-camera. They agree that throwing money at the problem is not a long-term fix, and don’t know if it’s enough to entice a new generation of employees. They are optimistic it could keep experienced staff on the job.
No hearings have been set in Madison for the proposals. First Alert Investigation will keep you updated.
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