FIRST ALERT INVESTIGATION: Corrections officer asks for National Guard to address prison staffing crisis

A 23-year veteran of the Department of Corrections begged the state to bring in the National Guard as the staffing crisis worsens
Published: May. 5, 2022 at 4:37 PM CDT|Updated: May. 5, 2022 at 5:44 PM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Corrections officers working in Wisconsin’s prisons are sounding the alarms again, now telling state officials the staffing shortages have gotten so bad they need the National Guard to help staff the prisons.

Action 2 News obtained a letter from a corrections officers written in the last week, begging lawmakers to act now and send in backup as vacancies worsen.

It is a problem we’ve been reporting on for years. This is the third time in six months we’ve looked at the staffing crisis in the state’s prisons after repeated requests from the officers working exhausting shifts inside those prisons. Those numbers tell their frustration.

Vacancy rates at most prisons in our area have increased since our stories in December and February:

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Green Bay Correctional Institution’s vacancy rate has increased nearly five percent since December. Oshkosh Correctional has seen a more than seven percent increase in that time.

Columbia Correctional and Waupun Correctional both have over 50 percent vacancy rates for security staff, even though Waupun’s rate dropped less than a percent since our February story.

Statewide, there are 1,322 positions that need to be filled, and right now, that’s being done on overtime -- and a lot of it.

Those numbers are why employees are now going to lawmakers asking for someone else to step in and help.

“Every day that I worked, it was on my mind. Every day,” says retired corrections officer Tom Langenhorst.

He will celebrate two years of retirement from the DOC in June, but in his 15 years as an officer at Dodge Correctional in Waupun, he became increasingly worried if there was enough staff to ensure his safety.

“It’s very challenging. You need to stay on your toes. You need to pay attention. The work can be challenging, but it can be rewarding as well,” says Langenhorst.

Despite retirement, he’s still well connected with friends employed in the prisons. State policy generally prohibits them from talking to us, but Langenhorst is getting an earful.

“There have been automobile accidents because they get so tired, they can’t... they just fall asleep on the way home,” says Langenhorst. “There are people retiring early. They’re trying to get out.”

In multiple First Alert Investigations, we’ve seen corrections officers detail exhaustive weeks of back to back to back 16-hour shifts, posts left unattended and people leaving for jobs that pay more.

“Being short staffed... it’s a safety issue,” says Langenhorst.

Now, a 23-year veteran of the DOC is warning Governor Tony Evers and lawmakers that backup cannot wait any longer. Through an open records request, Action 2 News obtained the email that employee sent Saturday, asking them to call in the National Guard, writing, “We immediately need the National Guard to be activated and start filling these vacant positions until Madison truly sees the horrifying outcome they have been watching develop since Act 10.”

That’s the law that took away most collective bargaining for most state employees. “That’s the point where I saw a lot of correctional staff leave,” says Langenhorst.

But it’s reached a new level of concern, according to that employee, who included documents to clearly lay it out for state officials. There are nearly two pages of staff assignments, with the vast majority of the lines colored in gray indicating they are vacant positions that need to be filled at Dodge Correctional just to get through this week. That’s 441 open officer and sergeant positions.

And that’s only one prison which is currently sitting at a 36-percent vacancy rate. That employee writes, “We expect these numbers to increase dramatically by a couple hundred positions come June, July and August when most people take their vacation time.”

We asked Langenhorst, “Does the National Guard need to come in?”

His response: “Yes, absolutely.”

But can they?

State Rep. Mark Born’s (R-Beaver Dam) office received this letter. His staff tells us the governor has sole authority to activate the National Guard but is bound by statute when he can, including war, insurrection or public disaster -- it does not include staffing shortages. However, the office says the Guard could be called in response to an incident, like a riot.

It’s not an unprecedented move nationwide, though. We found the National Guard was recently called to alleviate prison staff shortages in New Hampshire, Idaho, Texas and Massachusetts. It’s been suggested in Nevada and Nebraska, according to online media reports, but never implemented.

“I recall Representative [Michael] Schraa [R-Oshkosh] saying there’s a tsunami. That word is lightly used. I think it’s going to be greater than a tsunami,” Langenhorst expressed.

After months of arguing on pay increases and who funds them, the governor announced a $3 an hour pay bump for corrections officers, hoping to attract more workers, but it’s only good through June of 2023.

Langenhorst says staff is telling him it’s not working. “I just talked to an individual that’s a supervisor at Dodge. The individual said we were supposed to have one, one person, an officer, start in March. They never showed up. And they have one coming in, in July. It’s not working at all.”

We asked about that specific number and other new hires. the DOC says it takes up to 10 weeks to complete applications then training, so it’s too soon to tell if the extra money is helping recruit, but the DOC does believe it’s helping retain officers.

We asked the governor if activating the National Guard in prisons is an option. His office referred us to the DOC. That agency told us Thursday afternoon, “It’s not something we’re pursuing right now.”

First Alert Investigates asked the DOC what other options are being considered, aside from pay raises. It gave us this detailed response:

Sarah Thomsen talks about a letter sent to state officials begging to bring in the National Guard to alleviate the shortage of corrections officers

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