Staffing issues at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins and the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk could jeopardize prison safety, Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert told lawmakers in Casper on Thursday.
Low pay, a lack of affordable housing and the remote nature of Rawlins and Lusk are driving away corrections officers from the two prisons, which today are staffed at around 70% of where they should be, Lampert told the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee. The officers that remain are working increasingly long hours. The WDOC has spent 500% of its overtime budget for the current two-year budget period after just one year, Lampert said.
The staffing problems could ultimately imperil prison safety, Lampert warned the lawmakers. The committee took testimony and asked questions but did not propose any actions. In the past, Lampert has turned to the state’s chief budget writers — the Joint Appropriations Committee — for salary bumps. Lampert estimated his agency would need $6 million to create a more competitive pay system.
But Lampert in his testimony described a staffing shortage, that, combined with a full prison system, is leading to an increasingly dire outlook for the state’s prisons.
At the Wyoming State Prison — the state’s high security men’s prison — the staff shortage has led to increasing durations of “lock-down” periods and a decrease in the activities inmates are able to participate in outside their cells, Lampert said. Mounting lock-downs could ultimately spark inmate unrest, he said.
Routine and a sense that they’re being well cared for generally leaves prison inmates “reasonable,” to work with, Lampert said. “When we begin to restrict and restrict and restrict their out-of-[cell] time, the number of hours they can work, the number of activities they can do because we don’t have the staff to make it happen,” Lampert said, “they begin to get ornery and we don’t want that to happen.”
Also dire, Lampert said, is that senior staff with lengthy experience working in the prisons are growing disillusioned at the lack of pay increases. Meanwhile, the department is recruiting new staff by offering the highest salaries they can, bringing the pay of veteran and rookie officers closer together.
“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 that are starting to leave,” Lampert said.“That to me is of grave concern in regards to safe operations.”
Inmates at the Wyoming Women’s Center — the state’s only women’s prison — alleged in a lawsuit filed from within the prison in November 2018 that staffing shortages there were driving tensions in the prison and jeopardizing inmate safety. At around that time, WDOC in a report for a government efficiency study said staff levels were down 17% at the Wyoming Women’s Center. According to the estimate Lampert gave lawmakers in Casper, the shortage has since nearly doubled.
The state penitentiary and the Wyoming Women’s Center are suffering the sharpest shortages, Lampert said, while staff at the department’s other facilities were within 90% of where they should be. Housing availability makes the women’s prison and the state penitentiary more difficult to staff, Lampert said. An evaluation by the department suggested that prison management isn’t the problem, he added.
To deal with the staffing woes, Lampert said, the department has been shuffling staff between its far-flung facilities, while correctional officers work more and more hours. There is an all-hands-on-deck attitude at the prisons, Lampert said.
“People are having to work more and more hours and we often have staff in the management ranks that are doing the jobs of their underlings,” he said. “The amount of work hasn’t necessarily reduced,” Lampert said, though the department has increasingly tried to reduce the inmate population by shifting prison inmates to county jails and a private prison in Mississippi the state contracted with to house 88 inmates.
Increased overtime can be problematic for correctional officers, who work in a high stress environment. WDOC’s staffing concerns drove at least one lawmaker’s thoughts to the recent high-profile death of financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was found dead in a New York jail cell where he awaited trial on sex charges.
By Andrew Graham