Wisconsin prison staff shortage leads to costly overtime

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- A shortage of correctional officers in Wisconsin's prisons cost taxpayers more than $42 million in overtime last year.

There are currently 920 unfilled corrections jobs in the state, or a vacancy rate of about 12.5 percent, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

The problem was most severe at Waupun Correctional Institution and Redgranite Correctional Institution, where more than 20 percent of the jobs were open, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel . More than 17 percent of the jobs are open at four other prisons, including the state's juvenile facility.

The worker shortage has been a longstanding problem in the Department of Corrections. Overtime pay grew 1.3 percent in 2017 from 2016, a smaller increase than previous years.

 "It's very stressful, is what it is," said Paul Mertz, an officer at the Redgranite prison. "You never know if you're going home at the end of the day."

Despite efforts by corrections officials to recruit and retain more workers, including recent pay increases, the shortage isn't showing any signs of improvement.

The Redgranite has had to close its library and visiting room on certain days because of the staffing shortage. Inmates have also lost access to the weight room.

The problem may have been caused by a 2011 law that limited correctional officers' collective bargaining power and required them to pay more for benefits, said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, of Middleton. Workers have since been hesitant to take or stay in prison jobs because of low pay and the loss of the ability to negotiate about safety conditions, he said.

Prisons around the country are experiencing worker shortage issues, said Tristan Cook, a spokesman for the corrections department. The low unemployment rate is making it difficult to fill prison positions, a situation the state also encountered in 2001 and 2004, he said.
 

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