Prison guards pushed to the limit
Guards at state prisons in Hillsboro and Centralia recently got a new menu for lunch — more work.
Instead of a half-hour break during which they could leave their posts in housing units, guards were ordered to eat lunch while on duty. They were paid overtime — time-and-a-half — for working through their breaks.
“When you work in the kind of environment we work in, it’s almost a necessary mental break from just the random stuff these guys pull,” said Ryan Gammon, a guard at Centralia, about the importance of a lunch break.
Shortly after it was imposed, the order was rescinded, employees said. The Department of Corrections won’t comment about what happened, saying only that the agency can require staff members to work overtime and during lunches based on daily staffing needs.
But for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, which represents guards such as Sarah Scoggan, the order is symptomatic of a bigger problem at state prisons.
“Every day they are holding people over (for overtime),” said Scoggan, a correctional officer at the Western Illinois Correctional Center at Mount Sterling. “You come home and try to sleep so you can get right back up and go over there.”
No choice on overtime
When officers are ordered to work overtime, they have no choice. If they refuse, they face disciplinary action. That happened to Scoggan in February.
Scoggan works the 3 to 11 p.m. shift at the prison. Her husband, who also is employed there, works from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. They have three children, ages 11, 9 and 2. Their shifts have a brief overlap, during which a neighbor watches the children, Scoggan said.
Thirty minutes before her shift was to end Feb. 28, Scoggan said she was notified that she had to stay on for another shift.
“Who am I going to call at 10:30 at night to watch the kids?” Scoggan said. “My husband was at roll call, and I couldn’t stay.”
She refused to work the shift and was suspended for a day without pay. She’s filed a grievance over the incident.
In 2001, before large numbers of state workers left through an early retirement program, Illinois state prisons had about 9,200 security employees, according to calculations AFSCME made based on data supplied by Corrections.
This year, that figure is about 7,700, even though the inmate population — more than 43,000 — has remained about the same. Corrections has not held a class for new prison guards since November 2006.
Staff ratios ‘deceptive’
The American Correctional Association compiles data on staff-to-inmate ratios in state prison systems. (Its figures include security staff as well as administrative and support staff.) A report based on September 2006 data showed Illinois had the worst staff-to-inmate ratio among eight Midwestern states, although Indiana was close. Nationally, Illinois ranked 32 out of 44 states reporting information.
However, Emran Khan, an associate professor of law enforcement and justice administration at Western Illinois University, said it is impossible to set standards for staff-to-inmate ratios because of wide variations between states and even prisons within a state.
Factors such as the types and numbers of inmates housed in a prison, the facility’s design and age, and how much inmate movement is required can all affect how many guards are needed.
Khan provided a written statement from the National Institute of Corrections.
“Neither the National Institute of Corrections nor American Corrections (sic) Association recommends the use of inmate to staff ratios for determining proper staffing,” the statement said. “They are deceptive, since adequate or defensible levels of staffing are so dependent upon physical plant design, agency mission, level of security, inmate supervision plan, operating philosophy.”
There is a direct cost to the state for overtime worked by prison employees. In the 2007 budget year, Corrections paid $24.4 million in overtime, according to department figures. The year before that was $21.6 million.
Corrections could not provide a final number for overtime paid during the budget year that ended June 30. AFSCME contends Corrections Director Roger Walker told a legislative committee this spring that it probably would be $37 million.
Corrections spokesman Derek Schnapp said some amount of overtime is unavoidable. Prisons have to fill in for staff members who are ill, on vacation or making court appearances.
However, AFSCME believes Illinois pays so much overtime because the state has too few prison workers. For that kind of money, the union says, Corrections could increase staff size and reduce overtime use.
AFSCME isn’t alone in pushing for more prison staff.
“There’s a huge amount of overtime in the prison system,” said Rep. Gary Hannig, D-Litchfield, an expert on the state budget. “If you worked out the cost, you would save enough on your overtime to hire additional staff, and that would make people who are there a little more efficient. They wouldn’t be constantly working those double shifts.”
Toll on workers
Overtime in state prisons isn’t just a dollars-and-cents issue, the union said. There is a toll on workers forced to work 16 hours straight, often on short notice.
“We’re just in massive overtime,” said Lori Laidlaw, who works at the Dixon Correctional Center. “We’ve got one lieutenant who worked 22 days straight. He’s being mandated to work on his regular two days off. We had another work 96 hours. They are completely exhausted.”
Rep. Lisa Dugan, D-Bradley, sponsored a bill last spring to prohibit forced overtime. It passed the House, but was bottled up in the Senate.
“I think the administration is using the overtime issue not to staff facilities,” Dugan said. “When you get to the point of doing legislation saying, ‘Hey governor, you have to staff your agencies and not force people to continuously work overtime,’ I think that’s a very sad day. It’s not good for anybody, the employees or the people we serve.”
Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527 or email@example.com.