Crime and Justice

Report recommends 58 new corrections officers

A report from the Association of State Correctional Administrators recommends hiring 58 new officers to work in the state’s seven correctional facilities.

The report, which came out of a legislative mandate last year to take stock of staffing in Vermont prisons, recommends that the department hire 29 corrections officers to fill positions under current staffing practice.

However, the recommendations come amid a deepening budget crisis that already is likely to have a big impact on DOC. Though the department is asking for a 1.16 percent increase in funding in the governor’s proposed 2016 budget, the proposal includes several key reductions, such as a $2 million reduction to the Community High School of Vermont.

DOC has proposed to create 60 new beds for out-of-state federal prisoners in Vermont jails, which would result in keeping more Vermont inmates in prisons outside of the state, for a windfall of about $800,000.

An officer typically works five days a week, eight hours a day. When an officer misses work for medical leave or military duty, for example, his or her shifts are filled by temporary officers and officers working on overtime.

According to the ASCA report, the state actually requires 1.3 employees to fill the job requirements of one full-time post. Accumulated across the system, that work would be filled by 29 new corrections officers.

Lisa Menard, deputy commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said in a phone interview on Tuesday that those 29 positions “are currently staffed.”

Across the system, Menard said, DOC employs more than 1,000 staff. Under the present system, DOC fills the gaps in the work schedule by having employees work overtime and hiring temporary corrections officers.

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In addition to the 29 positions recommended under current staffing practice, the ASCA suggests that the state hire an additional 29 staff to fill positions that would increase security and safety.

“Public safety, as well as officer and inmate safety, are the primary considerations in making these recommendations,” the report states.

The report suggests hiring staff for intelligence monitoring, which would track prison populations for drug use and gang activities. It also suggests hiring more supervisors and medical staff.

Menard said the prison system is secure as it operates currently.

“We run safe institutions,” Menard said. “However, there is overtime involved in that, and that’s not the best practice fiscally.”

According to Mike Touchette, director of the state’s correctional facilities, programs that DOC has implemented to prevent violence are succeeding. When DOC began testing inmates for illegal substances 16 months ago, about a quarter of the population came out with dirty test results. Tests taken last quarter found that number had fallen to 6 percent.

“When you look at Vermont correctional facilities compared to national levels of institutional violence, we do extraordinarily well,” Touchette said.

Menard declined to comment on whether DOC will be following up with the recommendations ahead of the presentation of a memo about the ASCA report to lawmakers on Friday.

The Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA), the union that represents Vermont corrections officers, applauded the results of the report.

“VSEA’s corrections members have been telling the state and lawmakers for years that they needed to hire more full-time COs, but you see where that got us,” Dave Bellini, chair of VSEA, said in an email statement Tuesday. “At least we have proof now that our concerns are legitimate, and we hope this report will now lead to all of Vermont’s prisons being fully and adequately staffed.”

Further cuts are likely for DOC. Last month, lawmakers revealed a list of potential cuts that the state could draw on to help bridge the budget deficit, which could be as high as $126 million. Among the proposals is to close the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor.

Closing the prison could garner about $1.5 million in savings from the general fund, according to rough estimates from JFO. The prison has 100 beds and employs 63 people, eight of whom are temporary employees, according to the Department of Human Resources.

The House Appropriations Committee discussed the options of shutting the facility Tuesday. Lawmakers regard the proposal as being in early stages, but Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, a member of the committee who oversees the DOC budget, said she takes the suggestion seriously.

“Whatever the decision that is made, we will accommodate it,” Menard said.

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Elizabeth Hewitt

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