Wisconsin Feels Effects of Staffing Shortage in State Prisons
by Kevin Bliss
Staffing shortages in Wisconsin’s maximum security prison, Waupun Correctional Facility, prompted the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (WDOC) in June of 2021 to ask for guards at the state’s other prisons to voluntarily report to Waupun to work a two week pay period on a rotational basis through December. Many claim the shortage was due to former Governor Scott Walker’s signing Act 10 into law in 2011. This bill put an end to collective bargaining.
Working a shift outside a guard’s normal posting is colloquially known as a “force.” It occurs when staff is needed for weekends or holidays. Yet, this is the first time anyone has been sent across the state to another prison for a force. The WDOC covers housing, food, and mileage costs for this force.
WDOC prison population is lower than the national average. However, statistics from the Vera Institute of Justice show the population has increased 464% since 1983 and 20% since 2000. The increased population has required a proportional increase in the need for guards, which has not occurred.
Waupun is currently understaffed by 45.3%, meaning it has 134 vacancies out of a possible staff of 296. This prison may be by far the worst in the state, but every prison has been feeling the effects of the staffing shortage. Of the maximum security prisons, Taycheedah has a 29.8% vacancy, Columbia 29.2%, Wisconsin Supermax 28.3%, Dodge 26%, and Green Bay 10.3%. The state’s four prisons operating in Racine County are each understaffed between 9.9% and 16.8%.
WDOC has taken some minor steps to alleviate this crisis. For example, an entire cell hall in the prison has been closed to reduce the total number of prisoners housed there. New hires at Waupun will receive a $2,000 signing bonus. Veterans have received added benefits. Within four months of taking office, Governor Tony Evers approved a 14% pay raise at six Wisconsin prisons for guards’ starting salaries and added a $5/hr. pay boost for certain veterans. Still, none of these efforts have corrected the problem.
Current wages for Wisconsin prison guards fall well below the national average. Guards at the rank of sergeant earn approximately $17.10/hr. While in surrounding states the salaries range from $21.17 in Michigan, to $22.60 in Minnesota, and $26.38 in Illinois. The line guard salaries differ as much as 42% from surrounding states.
In 2018, the WDOC reported spending $42 million in overtime costs. One guard said his salary had tripled for the year due to overtime. He worked an average of 95 hours each week. He was one of the 540 WDOC employees who had earned $20,000 or more in overtime for the year.
The Associated Press (AP) published a report in February that said the low wages still cost taxpayers in the long run. “According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the [WDOC] budgeted about $57.3 million for overtime costs this fiscal year. They are also requesting $88.3 million annually, which includes salary and fringe benefits, under the next state budget due to an expected increase in overtime costs and compensation,” stated the report.
Measures are being recommended to address WDOC’s staffing shortage. Legislators have proposed a bill (LRB-3392/LRB-3484) that would repeal Wisconsin’s law prohibiting advertising for prison guards on billboards. Politicians are calling for another $5 hourly increase in guards’ wages. Prisoner advocates push for the reduction of the overall prison population through alternative sentencing measures which would also reduce the need for more guards and necessary funds to cover them.
Act 10 effectively abolished unions. In 2010 the WDOC was unionized and had only 88 vacancies across the state. Today, there are 781, Waupun itself has more than 88. A 2016 American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees report said, “Since Act 10 a record number of senior rank-and-file staff in corrections decided to retire rather than work dangerous duty where their voices would not be heard and respected by administration.”
Speaking on the staffing shortage, Republican State Representative Michael Schraa said, “It’s not safe for inmates and it’s definitely not safe for staff. Something bad is going to happen.” Which begs the question what if no one shows up to run the prisons?