NH Department of Corrections faces challenges filling positions

  • Staffing shortages remain a concern at the state prison. GEOFF FORESTER /Monitor file

  • Captain Nikki Plante of the New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women shows the general population area of the new women's prison during a tour of the facility on Monday, March 26, in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • An empty wall is seen where a row a vending machines used to be present in the visiting room of the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord on March 9, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • On December 21, 2010, prisoners move between sections of the New Hampshire State Prison, outside of downtown Concord. (Bryan Thomas/ Monitor Staff) Bryan Thomas

Monitor staff
Published: 6/4/2022 9:54:10 PM
Modified: 6/4/2022 9:51:59 PM

Missing workers in more than one-third of its security positions, the New Hampshire Department of Corrections continues to struggle to fully staff the state’s prisons.

Currently, 179 out of 499 security staff positions are open, a 36% vacancy rate among ranking guards, parole probation officers and investigators. Across the entire Department of Corrections staff, 252 positions are unfilled, a vacancy rate of about 26%.

Department officials did not provide breakdowns of vacancies by facility, citing security concerns. However, according to an email sent by Commissioner Helen Hanks in January, 173 out of 238 corrections officer positions were filled at the men’s prison in November 2021.

Between December and mid-March, the New Hampshire National Guard helped fill staffing needs in the Men’s State Prison in Concord. In April, the department told probation parole officers that they would be required to work one day shift every five weeks at the men’s prison. Unions for the officers and their chiefs pushed back, concerned that the officers would not be able to plan around court dates and other regular duties.

Seifu Ragassa, president of the New Hampshire Probation and Parole Officers Association Command Staff Union, said the Department of Corrections walked back the decision in May after conversations with the two unions.

“These are our brothers and sisters in corrections, we would never take a position of not helping, but we just can’t abandon our post,” Ragassa said. He said parole probation officers will volunteer to fill the necessary prison shifts, instead of being forced.

However, the prison’s staffing issues continue as it struggles to hire guards and pays massive amounts of overtime to cover vacant shifts.

“We can’t afford to run prisons with one-third of the workforce missing,” said Ragassa, who has worked for the department for twenty years, including at the shuttered Lakes Region State Correctional Facility.

“This is the lowest – I’ve never seen this,” he said.

Among New Hampshire corrections officers, the vacancy rate fluctuated between 8% and 19% between 2004 and 2017. In fiscal year 2016, the most recent year when the agency published a detailed breakdown of vacancies in its annual report, the vacancy rate for corrections officers and parole probation officers together was 14%, with 73 vacancies out of 538 funded positions.

“They’re so short-staffed, they’re putting people in positions that they’re not trained for,” said Christine Turgeon, communications manager for the State Employees Association.

“It’s ridiculously scary, they’re taking people who are not trained to work with prisoners, they don’t know who should be where.”

Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Richelle Angeli wrote in an email to the Monitor that the department does not put workers in roles they are not specifically trained to perform.

A decade of concerns

A Legislative Budget Assistant security staffing performance audit of the department conducted over a decade ago described a staffing environment “which may become unsustainable.”

“Over the last three fiscal years, the DOC operated its prisons with fewer uniformed employees, while increasing the percentage of total hours worked using overtime,” auditors wrote in the November 2012 report, which recommended in part that the Department of Corrections undertake a formal staffing assessment.

In its response, the Department of Corrections cited a 2004 staffing assessment, at the time its most recent formal analysis, that found the men’s prison in Concord required 371 staff “to operate at a normal activity level,” or a minimum of 277 for critical operations. At the time, the prison had 241 uniform staff.

“Achieving staffing levels identified by the analysis was and is not attainable under current budget constraints,” the department wrote.

As of November 2021, there were 173 corrections officers at the men’s prison out of 238 allotted positions, according to an email Commissioner Hanks sent to corrections officer Claudia Cass on Jan. 30, prior to a wave of end-of-year retirements.

The Department of Corrections did not provide a more recent staffing assessment, but Angeli wrote in an email to the Monitor that the department regularly analyzes staffing needs.

Corrections officers along with other law enforcement have long argued that changes made in 2011 to the New Hampshire Retirement System have steered prospective candidates away from jobs with the state.

As a result of legislation passed that year, the minimum length of service before retirement increased from 20 to 25 years for corrections officers. For employees hired after 2011 and those who were not yet vested by 2012, their highest five earning years of employment are not factored into their pension earnings. The retirement system is facing nearly $6 billion in debts it cannot currently pay, called an “unfunded liability,” while towns and cities have been forced to pay more to cover those costs.

House Bill 1587, which was passed by the New Hampshire House and Senate, would include those highest five years in retirement calculations again, thereby boosting future pensions. In a Senate Executive Departments and Administration Committee hearing for the bill in April, Department of Corrections Director of Administration Jonathan Hanson told legislators that forced overtime this year was close to $17 million.

Use of force investigation

In early February, staffing woes at the men’s prison were compounded when the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office opened an investigation into 14 corrections officers for involvement or documentation related to a use of force incident against a prisoner in 2021. Three of those officers had left the prison or retired, but 11 current officers were placed on administrative leave.

By April, two had returned to work. The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office announced on June 2 the investigation had been concluded and that no charges would be brought against the officers. The Department of Corrections wrote in a statement that all personnel under investigation had returned to full duty.

Former Captain Dan Boynton retired from the department in December but was listed as one of the officers under investigation for documentation of the use of force incident. Boynton said that he was never contacted by the Attorney General’s Office or by the department regarding the criminal investigation.

He wrote in an email to the Monitor that because the staff under investigation were placed on administrative leave, there was pressure on other prison staff to compensate not just for the workload of eleven regular employees, but for the overtime hours they habitually work.

“Most of those officers suspended work an average of four double shifts a week,” Boynton wrote in an email to the Monitor. “New Hampshire DOC staff are the most dedicated people you will ever encounter.”

Cassidy Jensen bio photo

Cassidy Jensen has been a reporter at the Monitor, covering the city of Concord and criminal justice, since July 2021. Previously, she was a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree. Her work has been published in Documented, THE CITY, Washington City Paper and Street Sense Media. When she's not at City Council meetings, you can find her hiking in the White Mountains.

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