Prison overtime costs in Md. spurt

With 10% of corrections jobs vacant, officers often work days off, double shifts

November 02, 2006|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,Sun reporter

The state spent more than $28 million on overtime last year to staff its troubled prisons -- nearly twice as much as the year before -- because officials can't find enough people willing to work in institutions racked by violence and other problems, records show.

The prison system is supposed to have about 6,325 corrections officers to supervise inmates, but 10 percent of those positions were vacant as of August.

In some prisons, vacancy rates were as high as 30 percent.

As a result, officers often have to work on their days off or stay for double shifts in exchange for time-and-a-half pay. Some guards, who earn a base salary of $33,400 to $55,300, have more than doubled their annual pay through overtime.

State officials say overtime costs are driven largely by problems filling vacancies as officers quit to take other jobs, are promoted or retire.

John A. Rowley, the state's acting prisons chief, said it is difficult to fill front-line jobs in the prison system when the economy is strong and more desirable jobs are available.

He said the state raised pay for corrections officers this year and is using other incentives to recruit and retain staff.

"We're not exactly a vocation that people wake up in the morning when they are young and say, `I can't wait to become a corrections officer,'" Rowley said.

The lack of staff translates into higher overtime costs.

Nearly double

For the fiscal year that ended June 30, overtime costs were $28.3 million. That compares with $14.8 million the previous fiscal year.

And overtime costs have remained high this fiscal year, according to records recently released in response to a public information act request filed by The Sun.

The request for overtime records was filed Sept. 25 after a summer of violence in the prison system that included the deaths of two corrections officers and three inmates and serious injury to dozens of others.

Turmoil was particularly severe at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, where Officer David McGuinn was fatally stabbed in July by two inmates who had escaped from their cells.

Relying too much on overtime to staff a prison can contribute to violence because worn-out officers might be less attentive, said Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore who has written extensively about prisons.

"They're going to suffer fatigue and burnout, and what happens is that you put not only their lives at risk, but also the lives of their fellow officers and inmates," Ross said.

Administrators seek volunteers, on a rotating basis, willing to come in on their days off to work. If that fails, they can force people to stay behind to work a double shift.

Corrections officers at the rank of sergeant or below are paid time-and-a-half for overtime work beyond an eight-hour day or 40-hour week.

Forced overtime can be an obstacle to recruiting and keeping staff because it can disrupt child care, make it difficult for a worker to schedule college classes or create other problems in personal lives, Ross said.

"I've had students who didn't come to class because they had to stay behind at work and they couldn't find a replacement," he said.

Sue Esty, legislative director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92, said the heavy use of overtime proves the union's point that the state's prisons, which house about 22,000 inmates, are understaffed.

"This is exactly the kind of situation that snowballs," she said. "Because there is not enough staff, you have a less safe situation, and more staff leaves.

To reverse that trend requires a major change in policy and in priorities, where correctional officers are taken seriously for the jobs they do."

New initiatives

Rowley said the state took several steps this year aimed at filling vacant positions, which should reduce overtime.

In addition to approving pay raises averaging 6 percent for corrections staff, the state is paying retention bonuses to employees -- $500 after six months on the job and the same amount after a year.

Corrections officers who recruit new employees also are eligible for a bonus that is paid in the same fashion, $250 after the new employee is on the job six months and $250 after a year.

"We're really focused on getting these vacancies filled," said Rowley. "That's why we're taking these initiatives."

Vacancy rates have been improving at most prisons, Rowley said, but problems remain in certain areas, such as the complex of state prisons in Jessup, Anne Arundel County.

Lt. Bernard Ralph, president of the AFSCME local that represents officers at Jessup, said forced overtime -- including double shifts -- is a significant problem for workers.

"Our members are complaining that they are being forced to work so much overtime that they are not completely functional," Ralph said. "They are not getting enough rest, and it catches up to them."

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