While the officers and staff who work in state prisons say they are short staffed, those within the Department of Corrections say rising costs and budget concerns need to be brought under control before staffing issues can be addressed.
Representatives of the prison system met before a House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Thursday at the Courthouse Annex in Bellefonte to bring their testimonies about staffing and the impact of current staff numbers to the committee.
The issue of staffing came to the committee’s attention over the past two years, Rep. Ronald Marsico, R-Dauphin, said, due to incidents of violence against correctional officers, inmates and staff.
In July 2013, an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview raped a clerk at the prison. Omar Best was convicted of the crime in May.
Other members of the committee included Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Cambria; Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Westmoreland; and Rep. Mike Regan, R-Cumberland and York counties. Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, also sat in on the committee.
“There’s always going to be a certain level of risk present in a correctional facility,” Marsico, the committee chairman, said. “For this reason, the committee members and the public are thankful for the services that the correctional officers, staff and the Department of Corrections provide.”
The hearing opened with the issue of excessive overtime by correctional officers. Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association Vice President Jason Bloom said most officers want to be able to work some amount of overtime, but the need for mandatory overtime had become too overbearing.
“Sometimes too much of a good thing is a bad thing,” he said, saying that understaffing leads to more inmate on inmate and inmate on staff violence.
A hiring freeze on correctional officers, which lasted from May through July, was too long, association Vice President Tim Walsh said, claiming that all facilities are operating below their own staffing projections.
“We know you are doing your best to reduce expenses,” he said, “but continuing to understaff our SCI facilities may be penny wise but pound foolish.”
Looking back at past disturbances, Walsh said, a common cause has been identified as understaffing, citing the 1989 riot at SCI Camp Hill.
The excessive use of overtime, both voluntary and mandatory, is causing a pay disparity between officers and their supervisors, he said, creating tensions and making it difficult to promote from within the system.
According to Department of Corrections Deputy Secretary of Administration Tim Ringler, there are 1,593 vacancies withing the prison staffing system. About 6.8 percent of corrections officer positions are vacant.
He cited funds as the reason for the change in hiring procedures, particularly in pensions. In 2010, he said, contributions to the pension from the Department of Corrections came to $55 million. This year, that number reached $265 million, growing about $40 to $50 million a year.
Medical care has also increased significantly, he said, with costs for retired employees increasing 89 percent. Personnel costs now account for 80 percent of the department’s budget.
Hiring is happening, Ringler said, but at a reduced rate so new hires can get better training. Improved training is expected to begin with the new class in January.
Benninghoff said he has heard through friends that the hiring situation is better as staffing has increased by about 140 at SCI Benner.
“The concern is they are brought in as a collective group,” he said, “so you have a lot of greenhorns coming in at the same time who don’t have the same institutional knowledge.”