Crime and Justice

Commissioner says corrections staffing shortage at ‘dangerous point’

Interim corrections commissioner James Baker, left, is seen in January 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The head of the corrections department said the current staffing shortage is at a “dangerous point” and said he had considered sending some incarcerated individuals in Vermont to an out-of-state prison in Mississippi.

James Baker, interim corrections commissioner, testified late last week before the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee on steps the department is taking to address the problem, from stepping up recruitment to working for better retention of current employees. 

“We’re at a very, very, very dangerous point,” the commissioner told the panel. The committee is made up of a mix of House and Senate members and met in-person at the Statehouse with the session also streamed online.

“Let me just tell you this, these conversations got so intense around a month ago that we considered sending people out of state,” Baker said, prompting what sounded like a gasp from someone in the room.

“Look,” Baker said, “I know the political ramifications of that, and I know how hard that would have been for people to hear.”

The plan was nixed after the department went through the process of “medically” clearing incarcerated individuals in Vermont to be sent out of state. The numbers didn’t work out, Baker said.

“We thought we had to get somewhere from 70 to 100 to move to have any impact,” Baker said. “We could only clear 35 of them. That’s the kind of medical challenge we have in the system.”

Since 1998, Vermont has sent incarcerated individuals it couldn’t house in-state to out-of-state facilities. 

About three years ago, the department contracted with CoreCivic, one of the largest private prison operators in the nation, to hold Vermont incarcerated individuals in its Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi.

About 150 incarcerated individuals are currently held there.

After examining the medical clearance numbers, Baker said the department next looked at whether there were any companies providing traveling correctional officers, similar to traveling medical personnel who contract to work for set periods.

“The answer is no,” he said. 

The commissioner then said he took part in a conference call with CoreCivic.

“I tried to talk them into getting into the business,” Baker said of traveling correctional officers, “but it’s not in their interest to get into the business.”

Baker, speaking in an interview on Monday, said all options remain on the table to address the staffing shortage. 

“These things are all being explored,” he said. “We’re looking at a host of different answers to this challenge.” 

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, whose department oversees the state’s prisoners’ rights office, said Monday that he’s been aware of staffing issues with the corrections department for years. 

“Clearly, we would prefer not to see more people going out of state if it can be avoided,” Valerio said. “I honestly don’t think the DOC would like to see more people going out of state, but if they do, it’s going to be out of absolute necessity.” 

He added that Baker is in a tough spot trying to resolve the situation. 

“I wouldn’t want to switch spots with him,” Valerio said. “It’s a very intractable problem right now.”

Steve Howard
Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association, in August 2020. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, the union representing corrections officers, also testified at the meeting. He said union officials and correctional staff met with the governor earlier this month to talk about the staffing shortage.

“We would not have gone to the governor of the state of Vermont if we thought the issue of the staffing crisis adequately being addressed at lower levels,” he said. “This is an emergency.”

Howard said the union has been sounding the alarm on the staffing shortage for a long time.

“We have not, until we met with the governor, felt we got some kind of urgent response,” he said.

Howard spoke of the need to increase pay and improve working conditions. 

The starting pay for a correctional officer is about $19 an hour, he said.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, an oversight committee member, said he hoped to see a bump in salary to help attract people to the job.

“I appreciate the problem. It’s not just with corrections,” Sears said of the staffing shortage. “But that’s a tough job, and hopefully we will consider upgrades to pay and working conditions.”

Baker told the committee that the governor has called on him and other high-ranking administration officials to work to develop a plan to address the issue. Those officials met on Friday, he said.

“We’re putting together some proposals for the governor to look at,” he said on Monday, adding that it’s too early to release what those proposals might look like. 

The commissioner said the department has 91 vacancies for correctional officer positions.

In addition, 53 correctional officers are out for a variety of reasons such as family leave, workers compensation, military activations and personnel investigations, he said.

Taken together, there are 144 open positions, out of a total of 498 correctional officers jobs.

Due to the staffing shortage, Baker said, some staff are working four, 16-hour days in a row. 

“No one should work like that,” he said.

Baker spoke of a recent disciplinary case where a correctional officer fell asleep at their post. 

“That’s a big deal,” he said. 

Compounding the situation, the commissioner said, that person “panicked” and made a note in a work log that they did something that they did not do. In that past, Baker said, that type of conduct would have resulted in a dismissal. 

“My point I made to staff: ‘Let me get this straight. We don’t have the staff to support them. We’re forcing them to work that kind of overtime, and because this person, who happened to be a single parent, fell asleep, we’re going to dismiss them — I don’t think so,’” the commissioner said. “These are the kinds of things that are going on.” 

He said 16 new recruits are currently going through the Vermont Correctional Academy. That class started with 20 members, but four left just days into the training after seeing the demands of the job, Baker said.

“We recognize what the challenges are,” Baker told the lawmakers. 

He said the department is using television and social media to get the word out about open correctional officer positions. 

One of the main reasons for departures cited in exit interviews is that correctional officers don’t feel valued, Baker said. 

The department had been the center of controversy in recent years, including misconduct claims against staff members. 

“Their work is difficult. It’s challenging, and the vast majority of people that work in corrections do this job with the highest degree of professionalism,” he said. “In a lot of ways, they feel like they don’t get recognized for that; they are invisible inside the system.” 

Baker said on Monday that correctional staffing has been a problem for decades. 

“We’ve been able to stay ahead of it until now,” he said,” “but it’s the perfect storm because [of] everything that’s going on. Everybody is looking for help.”

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