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Prison chief: Staff shortage could create dangerous conditions

A corrections officer drives toward the gates of the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins. (courtesy photo/Wyoming Department of Corrections)

August 16, 2019 by Andrew Graham, WyoFile

Staffing issues at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins and the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk could jeopardize prison safety, Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert told lawmakers in Casper on Thursday. 

Low pay, a lack of affordable housing and the remote nature of Rawlins and Lusk are driving away corrections officers from the two prisons, which today are staffed at around 70% of where they should be, Lampert told the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee. The officers that remain are working increasingly long hours. The WDOC has spent 500% of its overtime budget for the current two-year budget period after just one year, Lampert said. 

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The staffing problems could ultimately imperil prison safety, Lampert warned the lawmakers. The committee took testimony and asked questions but did not propose any actions. In the past, Lampert has turned to the state’s chief budget writers — the Joint Appropriations Committee — for salary bumps. Lampert estimated his agency would need $6 million to create a more competitive pay system. 

But Lampert in his testimony described a staffing shortage, that, combined with a full prison system, is leading to an increasingly dire outlook for the state’s prisons. 

At the Wyoming State Prison — the state’s high security men’s prison — the staff shortage has led to increasing durations of “lock-down” periods and a decrease in the activities inmates are able to participate in outside their cells, Lampert said. Mounting lock-downs could ultimately spark inmate unrest, he said. 

Routine and a sense that they’re being well cared for generally leaves prison inmates “reasonable,” to work with, Lampert said. “When we begin to restrict and restrict and restrict their out-of-[cell] time, the number of hours they can work, the number of activities they can do because we don’t have the staff to make it happen,” Lampert said, “they begin to get ornery and we don’t want that to happen.” 

Also dire, Lampert said, is that senior staff with lengthy experience working in the prisons are growing disillusioned at the lack of pay increases. Meanwhile, the department is recruiting new staff by offering the highest salaries they can, bringing the pay of veteran and rookie officers closer together. 

“Our more tenured staff, the ones that are not only competent but very capable of doing their job are suddenly feeling unappreciated … they’re the ones that are starting to leave,” Lampert said.“That to me is of grave concern in regards to safe operations.” 

Inmates at the Wyoming Women’s Center — the state’s only women’s prison — alleged in a lawsuit filed from within the prison in November 2018 that staffing shortages there were driving tensions in the prison and jeopardizing inmate safety. At around that time, WDOC in a report for a government efficiency study said staff levels were down 17% at the Wyoming Women’s Center. According to the estimate Lampert gave lawmakers in Casper, the shortage has since nearly doubled. 

The state penitentiary and the Wyoming Women’s Center are suffering the sharpest shortages, Lampert said, while staff at the department’s other facilities were within 90% of where they should be. Housing availability makes the women’s prison and the state penitentiary more difficult to staff, Lampert said. An evaluation by the department suggested that prison management isn’t the problem, he added. 

To deal with the staffing woes, Lampert said, the department has been shuffling staff between its far-flung facilities, while correctional officers work more and more hours. There is an all-hands-on-deck attitude at the prisons, Lampert said. 

“People are having to work more and more hours and we often have staff in the management ranks that are doing the jobs of their underlings,” he said. “The amount of work hasn’t necessarily reduced,” Lampert said, though the department has increasingly tried to reduce the inmate population by shifting prison inmates to county jails and a private prison in Mississippi the state contracted with to house 88 inmates.

Increased overtime can be problematic for correctional officers, who work in a high stress environment. WDOC’s staffing concerns drove at least one lawmaker’s thoughts to the recent high-profile death of financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was found dead in a New York jail cell where he awaited trial on sex charges. The celebrity inmate is reported to have committed suicide while two guards assigned to watch him were asleep while working overtime hours, according to news reports. 

“Having seen in the news … with the recent death of Mr. Epstein while in custody … this issue is certainly not unique to anyone in the country dealing with corrections issues and staffing,” Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) said while introducing the topic.

Staffing shortages join a litany of stresses on the state’s correctional system driven both by funding cuts and increased incarceration. The department has had to rebuild mental health and substance abuseprograms after budget cuts, and questions have been raised about the contractor managing substance abuse counseling at the women’s prison. The state prison in Rawlins has suffered structural issues that necessitated significant repairs over the last few years, while former inmates of the women’s prison raised concerns about that facility as well. 

Wyoming’s prisons are full, and county jails are increasingly being used to house inmates serving long prison terms. Former inmates from the Wyoming Women’s Center have told WyoFile county jails are unequipped for inmates serving long sentences. Facilities are uncomfortable, activities and classes are largely unavailable and access to healthcare is worse, they said. The conditions in county jails, designed to hold people for short stays, make it more difficult to use a prison sentence as a chance for rehabilitation, inmates said.

Economy, pay drive shortage

Lampert gave lawmakers several reasons for the staffing shortages, chief among them low pay. That, coupled with low unemployment in a rising economy, has made it harder to compete with other employers in Rawlins and elsewhere, Lampert said. Even the Carbon County Sheriff’s Department is able to outcompete the WDOC’s starting salaries when hiring in Rawlins, Lampert said. 

“Generally speaking when the employment picture is good in society in general the employment picture in corrections is not so good,” said the longtime agency head. “Our local competitors in the communities in which we’re located are able to pay more and attract our would-be candidates away from us.” 

WDOC lost some of its ability to compete effectively for employers in 2010 when the state abandoned a previous salary scheme that offered scheduled pay raises based on increased training and time on the job, Lampert said. 

Then, in 2016, WDOC suffered a sharp loss of funding following an acute downturn in state revenues from coal, oil and gas that forced former Gov. Matt Mead to make steep cuts across state agencies. The Legislature also cut 40 vacant positions out of the agency’s budget that year, Lampert said. Meanwhile, states in which the department used to recruit new officers were in the midst of a strong economic recovery from the 2008 recession, impairing recruitment, Lampert said. 

Even after 2016 legislative session, staff continued to depart. Lampert blamed the exodus on uncertainty for state employees. “Staff said we’re not staying here anymore, it’s not predictable,” he said. 

If the state does not find a way to be more competitive in hiring and alleviate the tough workload on staff, Lampert said, the staff losses will continue. “Those who are remaining are getting tired and those other opportunities are looking more inviting to them,” he said. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.