To attract more prison guards, state wants to suspend fitness requirements

  • This Friday, June 17, 2016, photo, shows the guard tower at the New Hampshire state prison in Concord, N.H. Despite added security methods, prison officials say they are seeing more drugs being smuggled into the state's prisons. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Saturday, March 11, 2017

Faced with the need to hire roughly 80 officers to guard the new women’s prison, the Department of Corrections is seeking to suspend physical fitness requirements it says have disqualified dozens of applicants. 

The Commissioner doesn’t “see it as a priority for our staff to be able to run a mile and a half  during a specified period of time based on their age and gender when they work inside our prisons,” said spokesman Jeff Lyons. 

Gov. Chris Sununu is supportive, but a union representing corrections officers contends any reduction in standards could jeopardize staff safety.

“To think that reducing (standards) is going to somehow fix the problem, it is going to make it worse,” said Jeffery Padellaro, with the Teamsters Local 633.

The corrections department has struggled over the last few years to recruit enough people to guard the state’s three prisons in Berlin, Concord and Goffstown. 

Last fiscal year, more prison guards left the job than the department hired, leading to a net loss of 11 corrections officers, Lyons said.

To make up for the staff shortage, prison guards have been forced to work overtime shifts. While employees are prevented from logging more than 16 hours in a row without an eight-hour break, many guards have to work double shifts multiple times a week, Padellaro said. As a result, department overtime spending has skyrocketed in recent years, from $3.3 million in 2009 to $9.1 million in 2015.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s budget proposal calls for repealing the requirement that corrections officers pass a nine-week certification to get hired at a state prison. Sununu supports giving the department direct control over officer standards, said spokesman Dave Abrams. 

The department is not seeking the full repeal, but rather a two-year suspension of physical fitness requirements so it can hire guards to work at the new women’s prison in Concord, Lyons said. Dozens of job applicants have been found physically fit by a doctor, but haven’t been able to pass strength or running tests. 

The fitness requirements are set by the Police Standards and Training Council, which runs training for law enforcement officers in New Hampshire, including state and local police, Fish and Game and the Department of Corrections.

Women between age 18 and 29 must be able to run 1.5 miles in 15 minutes, do 31 sit-ups in a minute and complete 14 push-ups, according to the police standards and training council. Men in that age range must be able to run 1.5 miles in 12:53 minutes, do 37 sit-ups in a minute and complete 27 push-ups. The requirements become more relaxed for older applicants. 

Padellaro says the solution isn’t suspending standards, but raising pay to attract more competitive applicants. The Teamsters recently declared an impasse in contract negotiations with the governor’s office because Sununu was unwilling to raise officer salaries, Padellaro said. 

“The pool of applicants could go to work at the federal prison system for $10,000 to $15,000 more for starting pay, or go right over the border to Massachusetts,” he said.

Sununu said in a statement he was “surprised and disappointed” by the stalled negotiations. The contract would cover the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years. It’s not clear when talks will resume. This fiscal year, which ends in June, the corrections department has hired more workers than it’s lost for a net gain of 10 people. 

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)