Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

How Walker Wrecked State’s Prisons

Overworked staff, high turnover, rising overtime costs and violence plague the prisons.

By - May 2nd, 2019 01:45 pm
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Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School. Photo from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School. Photo from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

When Gov. Scott Walker “dropped the bomb” with his Act 10 law curtailing public unions, he exempted police and fire unions. From a policy perspective, that made no sense: police and fire workers have by far the most generous benefits, which was the alleged target of Act 10. But the logic was unassailable from a political perspective: Walker protected the unions that supported Republicans and crushed the state employees union and teachers union, the twin pillars of support for Democrats. 

Had Walker made any attempt to consider his legislation from a policy perspective, the obvious exemption wouldn’t have been police and fire, but corrections workers, because they are so critical to running and reducing danger in prisons.  

As an analysis by the National Correctional Employees Union has noted, “Corrections is one of the most labor intensive businesses in the public-sector today. Approximately 80% of correctional budgets go towards providing necessary personnel.”

As a 2004 study Walker could have consulted notes, turnover has always been an issue in the corrections industry due to “noncompetitive pay… demanding work hours, stress and burnout.”  

“It’s not a job that most people consider,” as Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, told Governing magazine. “Growing up, people play cops and robbers, not convicts and corrections officers. You don’t grow up thinking ‘I want to be a corrections officer.’”

But Wisconsin offered union protection, pay and benefits. Indeed, the corrections workers were always a key and vocal contingent of the state employees union. Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson went out of his way to maintain friendly relations with the union. 

But once Act 10 crushed the union, a prison job became much less desirable, as Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME Council 32, explained in 2016. “A Wisconsin CO [corrections officer] in 2010 earned a fair wage and fair benefits, had a voice in his workplace and considered it a career to be proud of. There was little turnover, professionalism was respected, and assaults were low.”

Prisons are dangerous places, and workers appreciated that their views and concerns could be aired. But “Act 10 severely undermined the ability of officers to speak freely and frankly without fear of retaliation,” the story in the union’s publication noted. “Not surprisingly, employer-appointed safety boards implemented since Act 10 have not found favor with staff, who consider them one-sided and toothless. Adding more concern… since Act 10 a record number of senior rank-and-file staff in corrections decided to retire rather than work dangerous duty where their voices would not be heard and respected by the administration.”

A 2015 investigative story by Fox 11 TV in Green Bay found in fiscal year 2010, just before Act 10 passed, “there were just 88 full time guard openings at the state’s 21 correctional facilities.” That jumped to 403 by Spring 2015.

An employee survey conducted by the Department of Corrections in 2014 had found “82 percent cited ‘staff morale’ as the most pressing issue facing the DOC,” the story noted. “52 percent raised a red flag about staff retention and 45 percent cited staff safety and wellness as a most pressing issue.”

Rick Herrmann, a sergeant at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution, told Fox 11 that “vacancies began to balloon” after Act 10’s passage, which resulted in “long-time correctional officers retiring, new officers being hired at non-competition wages, and existing officers being forced to work more.”

Without union protection, workers could be forced to work long hours of overtime, and the Walker administration saw this as a way to solve the problem of worker shortages and problems recruiting new workers. It also saved money because you have less employees getting benefits. A 2015 story by the Appleton Post Crescent found that the number of overtime hours had risen by 45 percent four years after Act 10.

Brian Cunningham, who had served as president of the Wisconsin Association for Correctional Law Enforcement, told the newspaper that prison management has  “hurt rank-and-file morale by forcing too many overtime shifts.” Employees are “eligible to be ordered (overtime shifts) every single day of the year. Management doesn’t understand how that crushes morale.” 

Management made things even worse by disciplining officers over trivial matters, he noted. “Cunningham said a handful of officers were recently suspended for 90 days over critical comments of department management that they posted on Facebook; one additional officer was fired,” the story reported. “The new discipline system is a joke,” Cunningham said. “If management wants you out, you’re out. Where’s the job security?” 

Meanwhile, without unions negotiating for them, there was little increase in pay for corrections officers and the pay relative to jobs in the private sector declined. As one corrections worker complained at glassdoor.com: “Pay… only starts at $15.42 hour…The horrible conditions of massive forced overtime, understaffing just will get worse.”

Wrote another: “16 hour shifts. below average pay. Never knowing when you can go home. This is your life. No free time spend your day off sleeping. Its against the law to allow truck drivers to drive over 12 hours a day, but officers are required to work 16 hour shifts and drive home? Very unsafe for officers and the public.”

The problems that arose at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile institutions were all about staffing; there was “no one available to fill more than a quarter of the jobs there,” as a 2017 Journal Sentinel story reported. In all 93 of 313 jobs were unfilled. “As a result, guards are forced to work long hours and operate with skeleton crews.” Guard Julie Giers told the newspaper it would “absolutely help” if Lincoln Hills workers still had the collective bargaining powers eliminated by Act 10. “I don’t care about the pay,” she said. “What I care about is this past week I worked 72 hours in a six-day stretch.”

Short staffing was a key cause of the problems at Lincoln Hills, noted Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) after legislators visited the facility. Hintz: ”That was the one thing that we really took away when we went up to Lincoln Hills,” he told the Journal Sentinel. “It’s all related to staffing.”

Staff shortages and overtired employees working long hours can lead to dangerous conditions at prisons, as experts across the nation have noted. “There are people housed in those facilities who will take advantage of the situation, as Rodney Miller, the executive director of the West Virginia Sheriffs’ Association and a state lawmaker, told Governing. “There is zero room for error, and if you’re tired and don’t have your full faculties to do your job properly, then bad things happen.”

“Experienced Corrections Officers say safety has never been worse in our facilities, and appeals to administration leaders have fallen on deaf ears,” Badger noted in 2016. 

In 2015, the union publication noted, “the Wisconsin Department of Corrections reported 291 completed assaults and 70 attempted assaults that involved 442 correctional institution staff members. There were 61 injuries to staff members. Many times these incidents involve overworked CO’s, understaffed facilities and overcrowded prisons.”

Meanwhile, the pinch penny approach of the Walker administration was boomeranging, driving up overtime costs. By 2018, the Journal Sentinel reported, “920 jobs at state prisons — 12.5% — were vacant, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau… 92 of 441 jobs, or nearly 21%, were open” at the Waupun prison. “More than 17% of the jobs were also open at Lincoln Hills and Columbia, Dodge and Green Bay correctional institutions.” 

Which meant ever more overtime hours must be worked by prison workers. “The cost of overtime at the Department of Corrections has gone up 31%, more than twice the rate of inflation,” since 2010, the story noted. “The whole idea of Act 10 worked as far as Walker was concerned because it busted unions, but it’s costing taxpayers more in the long run because you can’t hire workers,” as Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) told the paper.

Overtime at Wisconsin state prisons topped $50 million last year, and by January 2019, when Democrat Tony Evers took over as governor, state prisons were short 683 officers and sergeants, with nearly 15 percent of all such jobs unfilled, the JS reported. “At one point last year, as many as 20 percent of the jobs at some prisons were unfilled…workers are forced to put in more overtime, often with little notice. That leads to burnout and more officers quitting, perpetuating the staffing problems, officers say.”

Evers hopes to reduce the overtime and improve conditions, but that may take a long time to accomplish, after eight years of mismanagement, compounded by a callous disregard for the workers, inmates and children endangered by an ever deteriorating corrections system. 

It was way back in 2012 that a Racine County Circuit Court judge wrote a letter to Walker warning him of problems at Lincoln Hills. Yet Walker took no action, allowing the situation to fester and grow worse, until it resulted in injured teen inmates and corrections workers, multiple lawsuits and a criminal investigation. 

Walker seemed to take pride in the fact that he never visited any adult prison or youth rehabilitation center in eight years as governor, flatly declaring there was “no value” in such visits, and that he would avoid doing so for another four years if reelected.

One of the first things Evers did upon taking over as governor was to visit Lincoln Hills, noting the importance of treating the youth there with dignity. “They’re children,” he emphasized, “and we have to keep that in mind.”

-And in case you missed it: Why State’s a Leader in Student Debt, Rising 194% for UWM Students 

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2 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: How Walker Wrecked State’s Prisons”

  1. frank a schneiger says:

    There are some interesting things about the politics of otherization and cruelty that are not often discussed. One is the unwillingness of those who rise to power through the politics of division, and who like operating at 35,000 feet to view the fruits of their efforts on the ground.There is a reason Walker didn’t go to his prisons. From the executive offices, it can always remain an abstraction. Another harsh truth is how little thought they give to the impact of what they are doing on those who they have sent to do the dirty work.

    While Walker, Cheney, McNamara, Kissinger and other leaders going way back never cared much about what happened to those they disdain, the enemies or the surplus populations to be locked up, placed in solitary confinement, carpet bombed or tortured, they might have been expected to show some concern for those they ordered to carry out these out of sight/out of mind tasks. But they didn’t, and in addition to the long-term -and very hard to repair – institutional damage that they do, one of their legacies is invariably the large groups of individuals, most of whom just wanted to do their jobs, who now live with PTSD and other bad consequences of their experiences. Basic fact: you can’t dehumanize the prisoners without doing the same to those prisoners’ custodians.

  2. mkwagner says:

    Dehumanizing any group ultimately leads to the dehumanization of us all.

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