Crime and Justice

Prisons face staffing crisis

Commissioner of Corrections Jim Baker, left, listens as Human Services Secretary Mike Smith discusses the conditions at the South Burlington women’s prison on Jan. 8. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Vermont Department of Corrections has plenty of jobs to fill.

But James Baker, interim corrections commissioner, said the problem isn’t finding people to take those positions, it’s making sure once they do get hired that they stay.

“To be quite honest with you, we don’t have a problem with recruiting, our issue is in retention,” Baker testified this week before the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee. 

“If you go back to look over the last two years we’ve hired 249 corrections officers,” Baker told the panel. “And we lost 116 of those in two years, that’s a 54 percent retention rate.” 

He told the mix of House and Senate members of the committee that the department has worked with consultants to improve background checks and the interviewing process to help better screen applicants and reduce turnover.

The testimony follows a move by the Legislature to fund 30 additional corrections officer positions in order to reduce spending on overtime. 

Currently, Baker told the panel Thursday that the department had 76 vacancies for jobs known as corrections officer I positions. That includes the 30 additional funded posts. 

“I think that is probably as good as it’s been in the last couple of years,” he said. “When I got here last year we were in the high 90s, low 100s.” 

Rachel Feldman, a spokesperson for the corrections department, said that as of Friday the number of vacant corrections officer I positions stood at 80. The total number of corrections officer I positions in the department is 376, according to Feldman. 

Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, the union representing corrections staff, said Friday that staffing is the biggest issue facing the corrections department.

“It’s all-hands-on-deck, shut-down-everything, level of concern.” he said. 

Howard said while the administrators, lawmakers, and criminal justice reform advocates push for more programs aimed at offenders, those who work behind bars get little attention.

“There’s got to more focus on the people on the front lines,” he said. 

“I think the commissioner is right, it is a retention problem,” Howard said, adding that workers don’t feel that the administration has their back. “Everyone is afraid of a lawsuit.” 

Northwest State Correctional Facility
Members of the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee speak with inmates at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton last November. From left: Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier; Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington; Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield; Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Pittsford; and Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington and committee chair, asked Baker how corrections staff is dealing with the challenges of Covid-19, especially with the increase in the number of cases across Vermont.

“The security staff is taking the brunt of this because of constant testing,” Baker replied, adding, “Look, the increase in the community spread right now is going to impact our facilities.” 

Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier and a committee member, said she wanted to know if corrections officers still had to work “mandatory” overtime shifts.

“The overtime is still mandatory, overtime is being forced on employees to cover shifts,” Baker responded. “There are various reasons for it.” 

For example, he said, a recent positive test result for a staff member at the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury has resulted in another 14 staff members who have been in contact with that person being placed in quarantine for 14 days.

“Obviously, that’s going to drive the overtime,” Baker said, adding, “These folks are under enormous stress right now and we’re trying to manage it the best we can.” 

Hooper asked what number of new hires would be needed to do away with forced overtime for corrections officers.

Baker said the department would need to fill all of the roughly 75 open positions for corrections officers.

And, he said, “We’ve got to get through this Covid challenge so we don’t have people going out.” 

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Alan J. Keays

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