FIRST ALERT INVESTIGATION: As lawmakers bicker over finances, correctional workers plead for help

Updated: Feb. 25, 2022 at 6:00 PM CST
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Wisconsin corrections officers are pleading for action to address staff shortages in our prisons.

The Wisconsin Assembly and Senate recently passed a bill to give pay raises to corrections officers, but a fight over who’s paying for it could derail it.

In December, a First Alert Investigation discovered several of the state’s maximum security prisons faced vacancy rates between 25 percent and 47 percent. Those numbers have since increased.

“I cannot begin to convey to you the frustration, the anger and the bitterness felt among our ranks,” Sgt. Paul Oosterhouse, Department of Corrections employee.

He continues, “That takes its toll on one’s health, both physical and mental health. It’s suffocating.”

Oosterhouse has 28 years of experience in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. He testified before the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee in February, urging lawmakers to stop arguing and do something about the record number of staff vacancies.

“They’re so sick and tired of hearing things are going to get better, and they’re preparing to abandon ship. They’re just done. They’ve had it,” says Oosterhouse.

Oosterhouse shared stories of officers working 16 to 18 hours at a time, for multiple days in a row. They missed family events and worried about making it home safely at the end of those shifts.

“It’s exponentially less safe for staff, the inmates and our communities,” says Oosterhouse.

First Alert Investigation has been hearing stories like this for months. However, officers are generally not allowed to talk to the media on camera without permission.

They can talk to lawmakers.

Oosterhouse pleads, “We need the help!”

Vacancy numbers have increased since December.

Green Bay Correctional Institution: 22 percent vacancy rateGreen Bay Correctional Institution: 25 percent vacancy rate
Oshkosh Correctional Institution: 25 percent vacancy rateOshkosh Correctional Institution: 29 percent vacancy rate
Taycheedah Correctional Institution: 32 percent vacancy rateTaycheedah Correctional Institution: 35 percent vacancy rate
Columbia Correctional Institution: 46 percent vacancy rateColumbia Correctional Institution: 50 percent vacancy rate
Waupun Correctional Institution: 47 percent vacancy rateWaupun Correctional Institution: 51 percent vacancy rate

“There’s some real urgency right now. Not something we can just punt on,” said State Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh).

State Rep. Dave Steffen (R-Howard) says, “This isn’t something that we can continue to look the other way. We have to be providing solutions.”

Democrats and Republicans agree that something’s got to give. Nothing has.

In our First Alert Investigation in December, the man in charge of staffing the prisons told us he had done everything he could to retain and recruit new staff--aside from money. Sec. Kevin Carr says that’s up to state lawmakers.

A few weeks later, there was a hearing before the Joint Committee on Employee Relations. Lawmakers debated backing a big pay increase of up to an additional $12 per hour using budgeted general funds.

Democrats supported that pay raise. Republicans did not. GOP lawmakers told the DOC to ask Gov. Tony Evers to use federal American Rescue Plan funds to pay for the raises.

In January, Assembly Bill 828 surfaced. The Republican-authored bill would fund a $2 pay increase in 2022 and a $5 increase in 2023. It would use only federal money.

One that money is gone, the raises are gone.

“It’s completely eligible and by the way, that money has an expiration date any way. We have to spend it,” says Steffen.

Steffen is one of the co-sponsors and voted for that bill. It took less than three weeks from introduction to passing in the Assembly--quick timing for legislation.

The bill cleared the Republican-controlled Senate Tuesday, but Democrats were not in favor of forcing the governor’s hand in allocating the federal ARPA funds.

Hintz says the state needs to own the problem that was brewing years before the COVID-19 pandemic and pay for it with state money that does not expire.

“The state has more money than it’s ever had before in terms of revenue, and this isn’t a one time fix,” says Hintz.

As the two sides argue over funding, they agree this issue has become a political battle with prison workers student in the middle.

“The people that work in our institutions, they don’t care. They’re getting caught up in a political chess match that’s really unnecessary,” says Hintz.

Steffen says, “This isn’t an issue to have a partisan battle on.”

In a letter to lawmakers, Sec. Carr calls out the feud.

“It is just politics and grandstanding as usual. And it’s unbefitting of our staff who work hard every day,” Carr says.

It’s now up to Gov. Evers, a Democrat, to make the next move.

“Do I believe that correctional officers should be paid more? Heck yes. They do a lot of really hard work where we have a shortage of them,” Evers says. “So that makes them have to work even harder. So yes, I think they should have a raise.”

The governor stopped short of telling us whether he’ll sign the bill or stand with fellow Democrats. He has until the first week of March to decide.

Oosterhouse and other officers head back to work, waiting for reinforcements.

“We can’t afford not to provide incentive for its current security staff to stay,” says Oosterhouse.

In a letter to lawmakers, a DOC employee wrote something needs to be done soon or he’ll request help from the National Guard.

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