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Hiring solutions needed for safe communities

By Sen. Jon Erpenbach and Rep. Dave Considine Staff shortages are not a new issue at Columbia Correctional Institution. Since passage of Act 10, and subsequent retirements and resignations, Columbia and other prisons statewide have been understaffed.

By Sen. Jon Erpenbach and Rep. Dave Considine

 

Staff shortages are not a new issue at Columbia Correctional Institution. Since passage of Act 10, and subsequent retirements and resignations, Columbia and other prisons statewide have been understaffed.

While the Department of Corrections has recently taken action to try to address this significant issue, they have not acted swiftly enough, and other actions they have taken as an agency have hampered the hiring and retention of additional corrections officers. Staffing shortages are not a new problem. Unfortunately Gov. Scott Walker and his administration at the Department of Corrections seem to be the last to react.

While neither of us have actually worked inside a correctional institution, we know that it is one of the most difficult jobs in public service. Without weapons, guards work eight to 16 hours policing and directing inmates who have chosen to disregard the law and ended up in prison.

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It is a stressful job. It is a dangerous job. It is a job that can, at times, be all consuming ­- costing people relationships, friendships, lives outside of work, and sometimes, personal welfare and health. For this, the state of Wisconsin pays $15 starting wage for your first two years. Just over $31,000 a year for a job that puts your life and safety at risk.

Pay is the issue for the hiring of new guards. Without the safety risks and simple physical and mental challenges of working in a prison that might be a decent living wage, but with their presence, it is not.

General wage increases are needed for all levels of corrections officers to ensure staffing at safe levels for guards, inmates and the community. To help deter the costs the corrections department should consider labor markets in the area and set base wages higher where the cost of living and labor market demonstrate they cannot hire without a higher wage. They have the statutory ability to do this now.

For those that have served 15, 20 or 25 years as a corrections officer of any rank, we believe the mitigating factor for retention is morale. Corrections officers are not the enemy. They are not the enemy for the public. Officers keep us safe and police the laws the Legislature has made in crime sentencing. Guards are not the enemy of Walker and his Department of Corrections either.

Policies that are created by DOC and known to cause distress and workplace dissatisfaction are a part of the problem. Policies like the additional $85 million pay cut all public employees in the group insurance plan over the next two years are another. There are no unions for officers, and the rank and file are left to bring their workplace safety and condition complaints directly to the DOC administration. This has proven to be a challenge for the DOC.

As we move ahead, legislators, the governor and the Department of Corrections need to accept that being a corrections officer is an extremely challenging job and policy decisions do have a direct impact on the hiring and retention of officers. There is no line of people waiting to put their life and personal safety at risk. Where there are opportunities for morale and pay improvements, they should be taken. Healthy, rested prison employees make not just our institutions safer, but also our communities.

 

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, and Rep. Dave Considine, D-Baraboo, are members of the Wisconsin Legislature.

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