I can’t think of many jobs less appealing than working as a state corrections officer. Even when the system is operating at its best — reasonable pay, a full staff and a manageable inmate population — it’s stressful work that may not have much potential for career advancement.
But Wyoming’s system is far from optimal, according to Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert. In fact, it seems to be operating in crisis mode.
Lampert recently told the Joint Judiciary Committee that problems staffing the high-security Wyoming State Prison for men in Rawlins and the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk could jeopardize safety at the facilities.
Coupled with overcrowded conditions that have led to transferring inmates to both county jails and private out-of-state prisons, an overworked staff with low morale and crumbling facilities, the situation is a recipe for disaster. State lawmakers and the governor need to take all these problems seriously and work diligently to find some solutions, because only they have the power to enact them.
Lampert said the Rawlins and Lusk facilities are staffed at only 70%. Staffing was a problem even before the Legislature cut 40 vacant positions in 2016.
We’ve seen that challenge before. When low staffing rates befell the DOC in the late 1990s, legislators pumped some more money into the budget and a pay system was created that offered scheduled raises based upon time on the job and additional training. But that system was ended in 2010. Since then experienced personnel have seen new workers hired at higher rates without receiving a bump in their own pay.
Here’s an unmistakable sign that the situation can’t be allowed to continue: Lampert said his department has already spent five times its two-year overtime budget in a single year. That’s obviously resulted in tired staff working in extremely stressful, sometimes life-or-death situations.
Officers with many years in the system are understandably moving on to other, better paying jobs, leaving younger, inexperienced colleagues to maintain order and safety.
“Our more tenured staff, the ones that are not only competent but very capable of doing their job are suddenly feeling unappreciated … they’re the ones who are starting to leave,” Lampert told the panel. “That to me is of grave concern in regards of safe operations.”
This isn’t just a problem in Wyoming; several other states are encountering difficulties in recruitment and retention of correctional officers. A Nebraska inspector general’s report to lawmakers last week mirrors the situation in the Equality State: a record amount of overtime, much of it mandatory.
“It’s very concerning,” Nebraska State Sen. Steve Lathrop told The Associated Press in response to the report. “We’re going in the wrong direction. When we’re short-staffed, it’s a safety risk for the inmates and the people who are working there.”
But compounding Wyoming’s prison woes compared to other states is the continued lack of funding that has resulted from lower mineral severance tax revenue. Legislators and the executive branch need to address the pay issues, but it’s not like there’s a sudden windfall of revenue coming unless lawmakers find a sudden, unexpected appetite for restructuring the state’s tax structure.
Luckily, there’s an even better, more humane solution.
A week prior to Lampert’s alarming report the ACLU released a study examining the demand-side of the quandary — how to reduce the number of Wyomingites behind bars. If you already have severe staffing problems, what can you do to give correctional officers fewer inmates to manage? Can the savings to DOC mean the money can be redirected toward higher pay?
There is no question that Wyoming needs to act quickly to stop the influx of inmates. Since 2007 state prison populations have declined nationally, but the trend is the opposite here. More people are being locked up and serving longer sentences for crimes, particularly drug convictions that often carry lengthy mandatory minimum sentences.
And when these prisoners do get out, many return to their cells for violating probation and parole regulations by using a controlled substance.
Criminal justice reforms suggested by the civil rights group would save the state more than $160 million and cut the prison population by 50% by 2025, the ACLU contends. But the ambitious slate of proposed changes includes severe cuts to sentencing guidelines that some law enforcement groups and prosecutors will surely oppose, making the full reform package difficult to pass.
Steve Lindly, the DOC’s deputy director, told the Casper Star-Tribune last year that approximately 90% of male prisoners and 80% of female inmates need some form of substance-use treatment.
The Legislature grievously erred when it cut both substance abuse and mental health treatment in the state’s prison system four years ago. After the DOC strenuously objected, lawmakers eventually reinstated funding, but the programs and affected inmates took several steps backward in the interim.
The ACLU recommends more access to early release and parole hearings, particularly for older inmates who have a lower rate of re-offending. That makes sense. But for legislators who want to play tough on crime, such action may be too tough to swallow despite the obvious benefits to society and the state’s coffers.
The Legislature’s Republican leadership has stopped several sensible criminal justice reform bills in their tracks, including lower sentences for marijuana possession earlier this year.
Until the state’s sentencing guidelines for drug offenses are changed, Wyoming will continue to send non-violent offenders to county jails where there are few or no programs to treat substance abuse, teach job skills or otherwise genuinely rehabilitate offenders. In other words, we’re going to keep feeding folks into the revolving door of incarceration and government dependence. That’s simply a bad legislative policy decision.
There will likely also be more exporting of inmates to private prisons in other states. Wyoming shipped about 90 men to a private Mississippi facility last year, in part because it costs nearly half as much to house them there.
The answer to Wyoming’s prison problems won’t be found in schemes to save money by using out-of-state penitentiaries or hiring private companies to build and run them here. Overall, private prisons have a horrible record of training staff and providing humane conditions. There is also no incentive to rehabilitate inmates, since these facilities make their money by keeping people locked up. Repeat customers are good for business.
Constructing new prisons to add to the five the state now operates isn’t a solution either. Wyoming has a history of mistakes in this area, including building the new Wyoming State Penitentiary the same place where the old one was sinking.
Wyoming built a new medium-security penitentiary for men in Torrington. It was budgeted for $68 million by the Legislature in 2006 but wound up costing twice that amount. If the state doesn’t have enough money to adequately staff the prison system now, it certainly won’t be able to pay workers charged with keeping the peace in more penitentiaries.
If Wyoming is going to fulfill its public safety obligations in its correctional system, it’s imperative that the state upgrade its staff pay to both reduce overtime costs and provide reasonable working conditions that don’t cause employee burnout.
The keys to lessening the problems plaguing the Wyoming DOC are in criminal justice reform and quelling the law-and-order mantra blindly repeated by legislators who see locking people up and throwing away the key as the only solution. It isn’t, as evidenced by the glaring corrections woes that now exist.
I know one thing for certain: Bob Lampert is an experienced, highly qualified professional who runs the best ship he can at the DOC. If he says he has grave concerns about safety conditions in Rawlins and Lusk, we should all believe him and demand legislative solutions. Simply saying we don’t have the money to change things isn’t acceptable.