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Corrections Department audit shows inequities, financial inefficiencies

Staffing shortages and inefficient management at the state’s prisons cost the state nearly $10 million in overtime between 2010 and 2012, according to a state audit released yesterday.

A second audit echoed complaints in an August lawsuit brought by four female inmates against the state: Female inmates, it said, get fewer services than male inmates. The lawsuit is pending.

“Not providing equivalent services puts the state at risk for further legal action and may negatively affect female inmates’ rehabilitation,” the audit said.

The audits were released yesterday by the Office of the Legislative Budget to the Legislature’s joint fiscal committee of House and Senate members. Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn told the committee that he agreed fully or in part with the multiple findings of both audits.

But, Wrenn said, the Legislature has made it difficult, even impossible, for him to address either problem because lawmakers have cut his budgets and have refused to approve money for a new women’s prison as the department has requested.

In addition, Wrenn said the sitting Legislature has not supported several policy changes he and others sought to increase rehabilitation and early parole. As a result, the inmate population is growing again, and that requires more staff.

“We know that we have deficiencies that sit primarily with the facility itself,” Wrenn said of the women’s prison in Goffstown and the fewer services and treatment offered to female offenders. “The space really prevents us from doing what is necessary for education classes . . . and programs. We do the best we can but we know what we do down there does not equate with what we do on the men’s side.”

Wrenn also said he has had difficulty reigning in the use of overtime pay because the unions that represent employees and corrections supervisors have fought his proposed staffing and policy changes.

The committee accepted the audits, and Rep. Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican, said the analysis should help Wrenn and lawmakers with the department’s next budget. The newly elected Legislature will begin working on agency budgets in January.

“As you have complied with requests that . . . you streamline your hiring, we likely will make the effort to give you the staffing you need,” said Weyler.

The two audits, one for security staff, the other for non-security staff, cited several concerns:

∎ Department officials have not done the kind of staffing analysis necessary to determine how many corrections employees it needs and how many should be assigned to any given post. The number of employees dropped 26 percent from 2001 to 2012, the audit said, while the prison population increased 18 percent.

As a result of staff shortages, the department will incur $4.9 million in overtime pay in fiscal year 2013. Overtime could be eliminated at the women’s prison and the Berlin prison and the maximum security unit of the men’s prison if all vacant jobs were filled and the department better manages staffing, the audit said.

Wrenn agreed in part but said a staffing analysis was done in 2004 and determined the department needed at least 277 employees to maintain critical operations. It has only 241 employees, he said. He questioned the wisdom of doing a second costly analysis if the Legislature is unwilling to increase the department’s budget.

∎ At the current staffing levels, every uniformed employee would have to work one shift of overtime every week, for 52 weeks a year to maintain security. Auditors said that approach was not only costly but detrimental to the health and morale of staff.

Auditors recommended that the department try to fill some vacancies with part-time staff rather than pay existing staff overtime.

Auditors said the department would have saved $884,000 between 2010 and 2012 if it had employed just 25 part-time officers for 24 hours a week.

Wrenn said he does use some retired corrections officers for part-time shifts but doesn’t believe it makes financial sense to recruit new part-time officers because it costs the department to train them.

∎ Auditors faulted the department’s practice of allowing highly-paid corrections officers to collect overtime at their hourly rate while filling lesser-paid shifts. In addition, the department is not controlling how much overtime officers work, so many of those near retirement take a lot of overtime shifts to increase their retirement pay.

Retirement is based on their final three years of wages.

Wrenn said the department tried to remedy the first issue by paying officers the hourly wage assigned to the shift they were filling, not their usual hourly wage. Wrenn said a labor relations arbiter ruled against the department the first time it tried that. On the second attempt, union officials refused to negotiate a lower wage, he said.

Wrenn said the department does limit how much overtime an officer can work by allowing them to work only 16 hours in a row. They must take eight hours off before working more overtime.

Diana Lacey, president of the State Employees union, which represents some corrections officers, said “it’s a disappointment” that Wrenn “would blame” employees for a budget issue.

“He is correct that he needs more staffing,” Lacey said. “He is correct that that is the heart of the mater because you don’t need overtime when you have enough staff. And it’s the Legislature that won’t give him enough staffing.”

∎ The audit also recommended that Wrenn use lesser-paid, nonuniform staff to do jobs that don’t require security expertise, including jobs in the mailroom, the canteen, training bureau and the warehouse.

Wrenn agreed in part and said he’s already begun making those changes.

∎ For the nonsecurity staff, the auditors found the department had insufficient nursing staff and too few teachers, librarians and staff to keep the industry shops open.

Wrenn agreed but said the current budget prevents him from meeting that goal.

∎ The main recommendation in the nonsecurity audit was to “ensure parity” of the services for men and women. Despite court orders requiring the state to do so, it hasn’t, the audit said. That opens the state to legal action and is a short-sighted approach to offender treatment, the audit said.

“By not providing female inmates with similar rehabilitation opportunities, the (department) may be increasing the changes of female inmates returning to prison,” it said.

In August, four female inmates filed what they hope will be a class-action lawsuit against the state corrections commissioner for the state’s failure to provide female inmates the same education, training and treatment opportunities it does male inmates.

The inequality of incarceration in New Hampshire has been well documented in at least four studies over the last 10 years. The most recent, released in October by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, concluded that the disparity in treatment raises constitutional concerns.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, on Twitter @annmarietimmins or at atimmins@cmonitor.com.)

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