by Matt Clarke
The pressures of mass incarceration, low pay and a tight job market are forcing states to pay tens of millions of dollars in overtime to prison guards – some of whom end up earning as much as governors.
A report to the Wisconsin legislature from the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) revealed that 4.1% of its $1.2 billion annual budget in 2018 – $50.6 million – went toward overtime for prison guards, up 17% from $43.1 million in 2017. DOC officials blamed chronic understaffing caused by low overall unemployment levels that depress recruitment.
However, guards have countered that their salaries without overtime are too low, noting that staffing problems predate the current strong economic conditions. They also blame low morale and a 2010 law that all but ended collective bargaining for prison employees.
Wages for prison guards in Wisconsin were raised to $16.65 an hour in November 2018, and $2,000 bonuses were offered to those willing to work at certain under-staffed facilities. Yet for a 40-hour work week, that amounts to $34,632 a year in a state where the median household income in 2017 was $59,305, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
At the time of the pay raise, the DOC was short 683 guards – nearly 15% of its budgeted staffing level. Some prisons had vacancy rates of 20%. State Rep. Michael Schraa, who chairs the Assembly Corrections Committee, said he would like to see starting wages raised to $19 an hour.
“We’re going to have to belly up and put some more money into this,” Schraa said. “We have to do better at recruitment and retention.”
Meanwhile, guard Bradley Thiede is famous among his colleagues for earning so much overtime that his total pay was close to $175,000 in 2017 – more than the warden of his prison, the corrections secretary and even the governor. One of 520 state workers paid more than $20,000 in overtime that year, Thiede worked an average of 95 hours a week – equivalent to 13.5 hours a day, seven days a week for a year. He earned $26 an hour during his regular shifts and $39 per hour overtime. About a quarter of the 4,955.5 hours he logged were for night shifts.
Thiede is now retired, but he was not alone in pulling down large overtime payments. Columbia Correctional Institution sergeant Bradley Frisch worked an average of 82.4 hours a week to earn over $169,000 in 2017, while Dodge Correctional Institution sergeant Kevin Streekstra was paid more than $168,000 for 87.5-hour average work weeks.
Overtime for guards is a problem in other states, too.
An Alabama prison guard scored a six-figure salary that was almost as much as the governor’s. Employed at the St. Clair Correctional Facility, Steven Tompkins, who goes by the moniker “Big Money,” received $117,798.46 in 2017. Governor Kay Ivey was paid $121,000. Additionally, Tompkins had earned $112,229.50 in 2016, $100,742.23 in 2015 and $96,266.57 in 2014. Despite the state DOC’s official policy of capping work schedules at 80 hours per week, Tompkins has averaged 90 to 95 hours. The Alabama DOC spent close to $31.6 million in overtime in 2017.
In Missouri, the state’s prison system paid nearly $21.4 million for 1.6 million hours of guard overtime that same year. In the first six months of 2018, it spent another $16.3 million for more than a million hours of overtime. A staffing shortage is blamed for both the high overtime costs and rising tensions in state prisons. The starting salary for Missouri guards is $14 an hour and the prison system has a 14% vacancy rate, with 700 of 5,000 guard positions vacant. The DOC has both mandated overtime and pressed staff from non-custody positions to work as guards.
In Colorado, the legislature had to allocate an additional $2 million to the state’s prison system to cover guard overtime for the rest of the fiscal year that ended in 2018. The Colorado DOC had an annual budget of $900 million and a turnover rate of 26% for newly-hired guards.
In Michigan, one of the prison guards complaining about forced overtime is Amber Dotson, who is often required to remain at the state’s only women’s prison seven hours after her eight-hour shift ends. Sometimes that happens six days in a row. Her base salary is $52,000, but she grossed $44,000 in six months – an extra $18,000 – due to forced overtime.
“It’s very stressful; very tiring – physically, mentally. It really wears you out,” said Dotson. “By the time we get an off day, we’re just too tired to do anything, whether it’s personal life or family.”
The Michigan DOC spent $12.4 million on overtime for prison guards in 2016 and 2017; the guards’ union is threatening to initiate arbitration and possibly go to court. The stress is also making staff take unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to get a break from continuous double shifts. In 2016 and 2017, the women’s prison logged 59,294 hours of FMLA leave – equivalent to 28 full-time positions.
Union officials are livid about guards being criticized for taking FMLA leave. They say prison staff have been “pushed into a corner” and are “driving around the freeways and streets like zombies” during their commutes to and from work.
Minnesota’s prison system, which has a shortage of 150 guards, also has mandatory overtime. The contract with the guards’ union permits forced double shifts once every five days. Understaffing and exhausted employees have been blamed for tensions in state prisons in 2018, with numerous violent attacks and two guards being killed.
The Oklahoma DOC is critically short of guards, spending $15.5 million on overtime in 2017. The annual turnover rate is 25%, and those who remain can be forced to work overtime. They have complained of having to work 60 to 70 hours a week, often falling asleep while driving home.
Starting pay for prison guards in Oklahoma is just $13.78 an hour. Some facilities have a 50% vacancy rate. The DOC moved to 12-hour shifts, six days a week in a controversial effort to reduce understaffing.
“We can’t solve this problem until we can pay officers enough to retain them,” noted Jackie Switzer, executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, the guards’ union. “Six 12-hour shifts with a day off equals 72 hours or more being worked in a 144-hour period. That is still extremely unsafe for these officers.”
When there is understaffing, prisoners are at even greater risk than guards. Prisoners’ families also suffer when visitation is canceled due to short staffing. The only way to fully staff prisons is to give guards a competitive salary, but many state lawmakers are loathe to do so.
“I think [prison administrators] do take these issues seriously, but how do you fix it?” said Gary Gross, director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association. “This is going to take a major commitment from the Legislature, and it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.”
The problem also extends to municipalities such as Philadelphia, where the city’s Prisons Department paid 550 guards at least $20,000 each in overtime during fiscal year 2018. At least 50 of those guards made enough overtime pay to match their base salaries, with 48 earning a total of more than $100,000.
“Without [overtime] income, we don’t make any money,” said Gregory Trueheart, president of the union representing 2,000 prison workers, most of whom are guards.
The Prisons Department racked up the third-highest amount of overtime among city agencies, which totaled $179 million – $40 million over budgeted amounts. To staunch the flow of overtime in the city’s prisons, the department has created a “roving” work crew to fill in when guards call out of work.
“Overtime is there to make sure department’s goals and missions are fulfilled, and that the taxpayers are getting what they pay their taxes for,” said Harvey Rice, who oversees finances for the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority.
“Most people work the extra hours to supplement their income,” Trueheart added. “Most people take that job because they hear of the overtime they can make while there.”
In April 2019, the Arizona Corrections Association filed a lawsuit against the state’s DOC on behalf of guards Roberts and Donna Christopher-Hall, seeking class-action status to include all Arizona prison guards, who spend 30 minutes at work each day without pay while they navigate required security procedures.
The basis of the complaint is a state law that expressly prohibits unpaid time on the job in excess of 40 hours per week for “any person engaged in law enforcement activities.” The suit also alleges that the guards receive no breaks during their eight-hour shifts.
Sources: jsonline.com, leadertelegram.com, freep.com, kstp.com, readfrontier.org, abc3340.com, newstribune.com, coloradoindependent.com, azcentral.com, philadelphia.cbslocal.com
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