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Corrections officials: staff, services wear thin as budget constraints persist

Patrick Bettens didn’t become a corrections officer for the overtime. But in the past six years, as budget constraints and declining staff counts have gripped the New Hampshire Department of Corrections, it has become a defining facet of his career. Nearly every week Bettens is asked or told with little advance notice to tack four, sometimes eight hours onto at least one of his five eight-hour evening shifts.

For Bettens, a 36-year-old father of two, the financial allure of marathon work weeks has faded. In its place: exhaustion and the knowledge that after a 16-hour shift at the state prison in Concord he typically has barely enough time to drive home, sleep for a few hours and drive back for the start of his next shift.

“That doesn’t leave much time for a life,” Bettens said.

Walk into any division of the state prison and one theme will eventually surface: getting by with less. Education and vocational training programs have fewer instructors, industry facilities are open fewer hours per day, mental health and substance abuse services have been trimmed, correctional councilors are in short supply.

Thinking for Change, a flagship cognitive behavior program at the state prison in Concord, has one facilitator and an inmate waiting list of 450, according to Administrator of Programs Tammy Sweeney.

“It’s a lot of work,” Sweeney said. “We do the best we can with what we’re given. But it gets hard.”

It seems unlikely it will get any easier. According to Department of Corrections spokesman Jeffrey Lyons, the department’s operating budget for the 2012-13 biennium was cut by $13 million after it passed, and the new, 2014-15 budget is $2 million less than that.

Though those cuts aren’t as drastic as in years past, with the prison population steadily increasing – it’s up 100 since last year alone – department officials, staff and community advocates argue that they will prove significant, further eroding in-house services, workplace morale and the likelihood that inmates leave prison better off than when they arrived.

“We certainly have gone past trimming the fat and gone into cutting into the meat of the system,” Bettens said.

The effects

His division has perhaps felt the greatest strain. Corrections Major Jon Fouts, who oversees security at the state prison, estimated that he’s lost more than 100 officers – about a third of his staff – through layoffs and attrition in recent years. As a result, he and other watch commanders are left with few options other than to compel existing officers to working extra hours just to meet what he called “safe minimal” staffing.

Security is not in jeopardy, Fouts insisted, but morale and workplace effectiveness has taken a hit.

“We often wonder where the breaking point is going to be,” he said.

Overtime expenses have also blown a hole in the department’s budget, swallowing nearly $8 million in the last two years and projected to do much the same through 2015, according to legislative finance documents.

Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn said the department is trying to hire new corrections officers but has struggled to do so at a pace that matches retirements and resignations. Fewer young people are signing up for the job than in previous years, Wrenn said, and fewer of those that are are able to pass the physical and background standards required. This year’s incoming officer class has 10 recruits; it used to have three times that.

“We never seem to be able to make a dent in those numbers,” he said.

Other programs have been affected, too. Sweeney said the state prison stopped offering substance abuse services in May because of a lack of facilitators. The library there no longer has a librarian (Lyons said the department is searching for one but has had difficulty finding anyone interested and qualified, and that it will likely take several months to fill the vacancy). The food service and maintenance crews have been tightened.

Jay Nagy, who directs career and technical education at the prison, said he had to eliminate a horticulture program due to staff losses and could cut more if any other instructors leave.

Between 2004 and 2012, the department eliminated nearly 250 positions, including 25 percent of its corrections staff and instructors, 52 percent of its administrators, 22 percent of shop supervisors and 17 percent of its correctional counselors and case managers. The department had 97 staff vacancies last year, according to department records.

Despite the reductions, about 75 percent of the Corrections budget is allocated for personnel expenses.

Lyons and Wrenn each emphasized that the department is still meeting its obligations as outlined in a legal agreement it signed decades ago, known as the Laaman Consent Decree, including basic offerings in education, vocational training, mental health, medical treatment and other areas.

But many have said the recent cuts still have repercussions, particularly for prisoners.

“The thing I’ve heard from inmates is there’s just less to do,” Nagy said.

Fouts also made that observation, noting that has in turn exacerbated tensions between inmates and his staff.

“We’ve lost a lot of non-uniform staffers in the programs and rehabilitation services,” he said. “So that leaves a negative impact on inmates, which puts added strain between inmates and officers.”

Out of the box

Corrections is far from the only state department to have felt a financial pinch since 2008, when the recession struck. But Rep. Peter Leishman, a Peterborough Democrat who chairs the Finance Committee division that directs the prison budget, said it has to walk an especially difficult road, because economic downturns typically spur higher rates of crime.

“Other departments have been asked to live in their means, but the Department of Corrections is at a disadvantage, in my opinion, because when times get worse their job grows in demand,” he said.

But Rep. Lynne Ober, a Hudson Republican who also sits on the prison division of the Finance Committee, said the department has not thought creatively enough to reduce expenses and fully work with the resources it has. She faulted Wrenn for not having laid off enough management staff when he closed the Laconia state prison in 2009 – a closure, she added, that he pitched as a cost-saving effort but that has saved the state far less than expected.

“No matter how much money you’ve got you always have a heartbreaking need that you can’t fill, that you can’t fix,” Ober said. “And some of those things are just heartbreaking. So I think people need to think about how we can make this work with what we’ve got.”

Ober’s suggestion: bracelet technology. Specifically, she said, release and electronically track more nonviolent offenders in the community where they can find a job or internship, all at a much lower cost to the state than housing them in a correctional facility.

Wrenn has opposed that idea in the past, Ober said. But he has said there is a need for reform that leads to earlier supervised releases and reduced minimum sentences for low-level offenders.

“More people paroled for the right reasons,” he said. “No one wants to see someone released if they’re dangerous.”

But for that to succeed, he added, there has to be more community support services for parolees and ex-convicts.

“We can do everything for an individual, but when they walk out of the prison and there’s nothing there for them, it’s like walking off a cliff,” Wrenn said. “We have to make sure as a society that there’s help for them once they leave.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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