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Staffing shortage at Wisconsin prisons has cost taxpayers $60M in overtime pay

Staffing shortage at Wisconsin prisons has cost taxpayers $60M in overtime pay

Waupun Correctional Institution, State Journal generic file photo

Waupun Correctional Institution.

A staffing shortage at Wisconsin prisons is pushing corrections officers to work long hours, costing taxpayers at least $60 million in overtime pay.

Roughly 15% of corrections officers positions are unfilled at Wisconsin's prisons, according to data from the state Department of Corrections.

The problem is currently most severe at Waupun Correctional Institution where 40% of jobs are vacant. Figures from the agency show 119 out of 297 job positions were vacant at the prison as of Feb. 2.

Rep. Michael Schraa questioned during a committee hearing Wednesday whether the situation was reaching a crisis, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.

“I don’t know how you operate a facility with half the people that you should normally have,” Schraa said.

The chair of the Assembly Corrections Committee said corrections officers are burning out from working long hours — and though lawmakers approved a pay increase from $16.65 an hour to $19.03 an hour, DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said the wage boost isn't on par with what corrections officers make in surrounding states.

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the DOC budgeted about $57.3 million for overtime costs this fiscal year. They are also requesting around $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.

The COVID-19 pandemic has since magnified the facility’s staffing shortage. The job vacancy rate at state prisons was similar in April 2019 at nearly 15%, but Waupun’s vacancy rate has increased from 32% at that time.

During the hearing Wednesday, Carr highlighted however that active cases of COVID-19 in state prisons have dropped dramatically at a 98% decrease in active cases since the peak in November.

Fave 5: Emily Hamer picks her most impactful stories of 2020

Fave 5: Emily Hamer picks her most impactful stories of 2020

Wisconsin State Journal reporter Emily Hamer's coverage of the protests in Madison this summer and of the criminal justice system is the work she thinks made the largest impact this year. 

As many focused on the nighttime destruction that sometimes followed local protests against racism and brutality this summer, some people missed the passion and meaning behind the movement. One of Hamer's favorite stories was one that focused on how Madison's youth were a driving force of the nighttime protests that formed organically. They called their movement "a revolution." An honorable mention: 'Celebration of life': Madison protesters honor Breonna Taylor with birthday party

Another impactful story revealed prosecutors can use small mistakes that aren't themselves crimes — such as drinking one beer, walking into a liquor store or forgetting a court date — to pressure defendants into pleading guilty. 

And before COVID-19 cases exploded in the prison system, a story in May showed that Wisconsin's largest prison was unprepared for the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Guards and inmates saw many ways the virus could breach the walls of their facility and spread unabated. Now, more than seven months later, the prison has had the largest COVID-19 outbreak of any state prison, with more than 950 total cases among inmates. 

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