Life in prison has alwayss been far different than life in the free world. An investigation by the Pittsburgh-Gazette into the wages of Pennsylvania prison employees revealed one of those differences – an Alice-in-Wonderland quality to the Department of Corrections' (DOC) pay scale.
Typically, an employee's higher rank merits greater pay. Yet Pennsylvania prison guards, who occupy the bottom rung of the DOC's employment ladder, are some of the state's highest paid prison workers.
For example, of the 23 employees at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Pittsburgh who earned more than $100,000 in 2011, 21 were guards or sergeants. That same year, the best-paid captain at SCI Pittsburgh earned less than $88,000 while the top-paid lieutenant made $73,817. One guard, whose base pay was around $51,000, padded his income with leave pay, shift differentials and overtime to earn a total of $139,571. His overtime pay alone was approximately $75,000.
"That guy works every minute he can," said David Mandella, local vice president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Association (PSCOA).
Of the $5.5 million in overtime paid at SCI Pittsburgh in 2011 – representing 17.3% of the prison's total payroll – $4.9 million went to guards and sergeants. "[Overtime] costs have increased over the years to a current cost ... of $50 million" systemwide, said DOC spokeswoman Susan McNaughton.
The pay disparity is creating "a public safety problem" due to erosion of prison management, said state Senator David Argall. "When you have good quality officers who are not even willing to take the test [to become lieutenants] because they don't want to take a pay cut in a promotion, what happens then is perhaps the people who do get the promotions aren't the best qualified.
"Just about everyone can understand that lieutenants and captains should make more than sergeants," he continued. "Otherwise, why would talented, experienced sergeants try to advance? I don't think anyone I represent wants to see inexperienced officers overseeing large numbers of prisoners."
Even the union sees a problem. "I'm a taxpayer, so I hate to see any money wasted," said PSCOA president Roy Pinto. "I'd like to see the prisons staffed properly so the overtime was minimal, as opposed to the rampant overtime that's out there."
An organization that represents prison administrators, the Commissioned Officers Association, noted that "morale among lieutenants and captains is at a new low," as many supervisors are making less than the lower-ranked staff they supervise. In some cases, lieutenants have requested voluntary demotions so they can earn more as sergeants.
DOC officials are "very aware of this issue," McNaughton said, and are trying to address the problem by "improved scheduling, utilizing some wage positions to off-set long-term leaves, filling vacancies faster, and training staff faster on shift when possible."
The PSCOA pointed out that the state's prison system is understaffed. "The management there knows they need enough people to cover those posts," Pinto stated. "But [the DOC] likes to balance its budget on the backs of the officers," by hiring an insufficient number of line staff and relying on overtime.
The use of overtime has long-lasting fiscal costs. From December 2011 to February 2012, 72 prison guards with ten or more years of service retired; they will receive an average annual pension of $29,282 from the state for the rest of their lives. One guard, who was a 38-year veteran, was awarded a pension of $89,780. Such awards are based on their three highest years of earnings, including overtime.
To solve the pay disparity problem, Senator Argall said he plans to introduce legislation that will require prison supervisors – lieutenants and captains, who are not unionized – to earn more than the rank and file in base pay. On April 5, 2013, Argall issued a memo that stated his bill would amend the Public Employee Relations Act "to ensure captains/lieutenants/first-level supervisors in the Department of Corrections receive a salary increase that matches pay raises earned by the highest-ranking corrections officer in a collective bargaining unit."
Until the legislation passes, however, the DOC's pay structure will continue to result in guards and sergeants earning more than their supervisors, largely due to the financial incentive of working overtime.
Sources: Pittsburgh-Gazette, www.legis.state.pa.us
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