Wisconsin Public Radio

State Prisons Badly Short of Staff

15% of staff positions in state unfilled, up to 40% at Waupun prison.

By , Wisconsin Public Radio - Feb 10th, 2021 07:01 pm
Waupun Correctional Institute in Waupun, Wis. Lauren Fuhrmann/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Waupun Correctional Institute in Waupun, Wis. Lauren Fuhrmann/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Just under 690 jobs, or roughly 15 percent of corrections officer positions, are unfilled at Wisconsin’s prisons, according to data from the state Department of Corrections. The problem is most severe at Waupun Correctional Institution where 40 percent of jobs are vacant.

The DOC announced in December it was closing a cell hall at Waupun to help relieve the staffing shortage. Figures from the agency show 119 out of 297 corrections officer positions were vacant at the prison as of Feb. 2.

In a committee hearing Wednesday, Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, questioned whether the situation had reached a crisis.

“I don’t know how you operate a facility with half the people that you should normally have,” Schraa said.

The chair of the Assembly Corrections Committee said he’s received many messages from corrections officers in his district, which includes the Waupun prison, who say they’re burning out from working long hours.

Lawmakers approved a pay bump from $16.65 per hour to $19.03 per hour for corrections officers under the current state budget that sought to address long-standing vacancies that have driven up overtime costs at state prisons. But, DOC Secretary Kevin Carr told lawmakers the wage boost isn’t on par with what corrections officers make in surrounding states.

“We still have ground to make up there,” Carr said. “That impacts the overall picture throughout the agency at every facility and impacts the vacancy rates overall.”

In 2019, the Evers administration approved a $5-an-hour raise for workers at a handful of correctional facilities, including Waupun, Columbia, Dodge, Green Bay and Taycheedah. Carr said the pay hike helped alleviate staffing shortages at three of the five — but not at Dodge and Waupun.

“The one that seems to historically, not just recently, but historically has been the biggest challenge to maintain a low vacancy rate is Waupun,” said Carr. “I think a lot of it has to do with its age and the conditions of working there.”

The job vacancy rate at state prisons was similar in April 2019 at nearly 15 percent, but Waupun’s vacancy rate has increased from 32 percent at that time.

The maximum security prison, which opened in 1851, was designed to hold 882 individuals. The facility can house up to 1,290 inmates. As of Feb. 5, the prison held 981 inmates.

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the facility’s staffing shortage at times during the last year. As of Wednesday, Waupun had 129 employees and 722 inmates who have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the pandemic.

A quarter of the state’s 36 correctional facilities have job vacancy rates of 20 percent or more, including Taycheedah and Columbia. DOC has 1,363 vacant positions, 13.4 percent of the agency’s more than 10,000 employees.

The DOC budgeted around $57.3 million for overtime costs this fiscal year, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The agency is requesting around $88.3 million annually under the next state budget due to an expected increase in overtime costs and compensation.

Screenshot taken Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, of data from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Screenshot taken Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, of data from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

COVID-19 Cases Down 98 Percent From Peak In November

During the hearing Wednesday, Carr highlighted that active cases of COVID-19 in state prisons have dropped dramatically since the height of a surge in cases in November.

On Wednesday, the state’s correctional facilities had 40 active cases among inmates, down from 2,294 cases at its peak Nov. 23.

“That’s a 98 percent decrease in active cases since that peak in late November,” Carr said.

Reports among staff were also down with 48 active cases of the virus Wednesday, said Carr. He said all health care employees who wanted the COVID-19 vaccine have received it, and correctional staff are currently being vaccinated.

Corrections officials have taken steps to prevent the spread of the virus in state prisons, including wearing masks, screening workers, limiting inmate movements and enhanced cleaning.
Despite precautions, more than half the state’s prison population — 10,789 inmates — have tested positive for the virus. At least 25 inmates have died during the pandemic, according to DOC figures.

Federal health officials say correctional facilities face significant challenges in reducing the spread of the disease due to crowding, shared facilities and staff who come and go each day.

Worker Shortage At Wisconsin Prisons Leaves 40 Percent Of Jobs Unfilled At Waupun was originally published by Wisconsin Public Radio.

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