For more than a decade, New Hampshire prisons have been under enormous pressure. The prison population has gone up as staff numbers have gone down. Aside from the inmates, few feel the consequences as acutely as the state’s correctional officers.
Corrections Sergeant Justin Jardine represents prison officers with the State Employees’ union. “I'm working approximately 3 double shifts a week, so 64 hours a week,”says Jardine. Younger officers, Jardine says, work 4 or 5 double shifts -- around 80 hours a week.
The overtime is forced. That means if officers refuse to work, they’ll be disciplined -- whatever the circumstances. And although you can volunteer to work overtime shifts that fit your schedule, officers often don’t find out they can’t go home until they get to work.
The money is good – overtime earns time and a half. A sergeant like Jardine can walk home with almost $70,000 a year. But, Jardine says, “no matter how money hungry you are, no one wants to do that for years on end. And it’s been years now.”
Prison Guard Shortage
In 2004, a prison staffing analysis found the Concord prison for men needs 371 officers to operate normally; 277 for critical operations. Today, they are down to 198. Initially, positions were left vacant due to budget cuts across the department. Now, says warden Richard Gerry, the problem is finding qualified recruits.
“We get a lot of applications,” Gerry says, “but then putting them through the different steps in our hiring process -- a lot don't show up, or they don't pass the hiring phasing.”
There may be a snowball effect, too. The worse the working conditions, the harder it is to convince new recruits to sign on. Commissioner Bill Wrenn says the problem is about to get worse.
“Employees’ average age is increasing,” he says, and with aging state employees comes retirement. “They have the ability to retire after 20 years at age 45.”
A 2012 state audit warned the more burned out the officers are, the more likely they are to take their benefits and retire. In fact, the department has lost many more officers than they’ve hired for five years running.
Since 2010, paying overtime has cost the state $3.5 million dollars more than it would have spent paying full time employees.
Governor Maggie Hassan says she and Commissioner Wrenn are trying to fix things. “We have redesigned the process,” she says, "moving the application process online,” and streamlining the testing process.
The DOC still has only one employee responsible for recruitment and hiring. But now, 27 staff volunteers are going to job fairs, and even making follow up calls to applicants who fail to show up on test days.
But there may be a bigger problem for the Department of Corrections: New Hampshire’s economy is actually doing well.
A.T. Wall, the president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, says prison jobs are hard, dangerous, and require nights and weekends. He’s not surprised people opt for other jobs in a place like New Hampshire, where unemployment is low, “and where correctional officer salary and benefits lag behind what someone could make in another position.”
Right now, correctional officer salaries start at $33,600, which is $10,000 less than salaries at local police departments. However, policy makers aren’t talking about immediately boosting salaries. Governor Hassan says she wants to test the new online application process, first.
Inmate Outcomes Suffer
In the meantime, things at the Concord state prison for men do not look good. Inmate Eric Grant has been at the prison for 24 years, on a second degree murder charge. He says he’s found officers sleeping when they should be watching security cameras. “It happens,” says Grant. “I'm not gonna say all the time, but, his job is to monitor the unit, so in front of him there could be an assault going on and he wouldn't see it.”
Grant says staff cutbacks have consequences. As staffing levels have dropped, inmate assaults have risen 30 percent during the last decade. Recidivism rates are up 60 percent.
Of course, there’s more to those numbers than just staffing. Prisons are overcrowded; there are growing racial tensions and increased drug use behind prison bars. At the same time, treatment programs, educational classes, work programs -- even visiting hours and sports -- have been all been cut back.
As Grant sees it “everything’s related to everything,” when it comes to inmate outcomes.
With 55 officers becoming eligible for retirement this year, this staffing shortage may get worse before it gets better.