Thursday, September 10, 2015

Portage prison guards being abused in post-Act 10 world

Sometimes in a small-town newspaper comes a big-time story. We saw this today in an in-depth and shocking article by Jonathan Stefonek in the Portage Daily Register, where the city's two representatives in the State Legislature (State Sen. Jon Erpenbach and State Rep. Dave Considine) sat down with workers at the Columbia Correctional Institute, and found out in awful detail that the damage from Gov. Scott Walker's busting of public employee unions continues to fester.
Everyone seemed to have a story of being stopped at the door on their way out at the end of an eight-hour shift, only to be told that they needed to turn around to work another eight hours.

“I had some suspicions. I got stopped at a church I was singing at two weeks ago,” said Considine. “A couple in Baraboo saves a couch for a guy. They said he would get done at midnight and [CCI management] will tell him when he gets done at midnight that he has to be back at 8 o’clock in the morning.”

Among the attendees were would-be and formerly active community members who didn’t have the time for anything outside work. There’s no telling when a person might “get ordered,” they said, which eliminates the possibility of making regular appointments with any kind of club or organization. It makes single parenting impossible without having a babysitter on call 24 hours a day. For a single person, there isn’t room to responsibly own a dog or a cat.

CCI has instituted a number of stop-gap policies to keep the facility operational. One of which has been to temporarily bring in officers from elsewhere in the area, such as Waupun or Fox Lake. This is a temporary solution, involving paying travel costs, lodging and meals for visiting workers. Despite the benefits, some of these officers quickly turned around and headed home after witnessing conditions at the prison. One officer didn’t even put in a week before telling the other officers that his safety wasn’t worth it and he was getting out.
And the reason these officers can "get ordered" with no notice for a second 8-hour shift in a day is because Gov. Walker's Act 10 took away collective bargaining rights for these correctional officers. This essentially made the guards "at-will" employees without a union that would demand procedures be put in place regarding such stopgap measures. In fact, the officers said that staffing is so short at CCI that civilian staff is sometimes called in to help oversee inmates when they are in common areas such for daily events such as eating. Stefonek's article notes that over 1/4 of the 233 correctional officer positions at CCI are unfilled, and with starting pay at only $15.20 an hour, they can't find anyone that would take on this dangerous work. So instead, taxpayers have to shell out for increasing amounts of overtime paid to the few guards that are able to stay, and the extra travel costs that are taken on to move officers from the other prisons into Portage to cover some of those shifts.

Wisconsin already has to increase spending by $29.4 million in the current 2015-17 budget to handle the increasing prison populations and contract for extra beds at previously-shuttered state facilities, and overtime pay was also increased by $81 million compared to the previous budget. Yes, the overall Corrections budget was down by $145.9 million compared to the previous budget, but almost all of that is due to a transfer of community-based juvenile services to the Department of Children and Families, and even with $40 million in savings from lower debt and energy costs, the overall amount to pay for actual housing and supervision of inmates has gone up. This is even taking into account Walker's provision to stop staffing the prisons' guard towers overnight (all figures come from the summary of the Corrections budget by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau).

Near the end of the Portage Daily Register story, there is this gripping passage from Stefonek that puts into focus how 4 years of Act 10's thumbscrews have worn down the correctional officers' morale, and hurt the level of service of CCI.
Erpenbach asked the group if there was one thing that could be changed, what they would do. This quickly got into the details of the math of scheduling --whether 12-hour days might be better — and different orientation. But the heart of the situation was a need for more staff, which by all assessments voiced at the meeting would be a lost cause without a change in the administration.
And I'm just scratching the surface of this excellent article. Keep it in mind when you hear Scott Walker promising to "wreak havoc" on Washington like he did in Wisconsin, Realize just what "havoc" has resulted at CCI after taking away the rights of public employees, and realize that the damage doesn't just happen with the one-time "bomb" of Act 10, but it lingers and multiplies over time.


  1. And did you see the story in the Green Bay Press Gazette yesterday about the attack on employees at the corrections facility there?

    Two staffers went to the hospital with injuries. The Green Bay CI has been on at least partial lockdown since July!, so how did this happen? Probably not enough guards.

    The comments on this article are heart rending.

  2. The officer shortages extend into the other Wis. state prisons, with the same forced overtime situation as CCI. Nobody should be surprised, as Act 10 was just the first round of loss for the AFSCME correctional officers. It was to be an all around win for the republicans, with the removal of the union, and the removal of the higher paid veteran officers, to be replaced with low payed non-unionized rookies. Many workrules have been implemented, (or are in the process of being added), that have made the job undesirable for the veteran officers and the exodous continues.

    Any doubt to the contrary was removed when on Wisconsin Public Radio, republican UW professor John Sharpless, said that his friends in Madison were very pleased Act 10 caused so many state employees to retire.

    Now, the republicans have a problem as they've lost the veteran officers that were "cut out to be correctional officers", and the attempt to replace with newly minted officers is failing as the new officers are finding employment elsewhere more attractive than what the republicans are offering.

  3. JB, ippons- Thanks for your contributions in the comments. This is truly a tragic and preventable situation, but the power-grabbing greed of this Governor and those who stood with him are items that have led to things getting worse and worse.

    But then again, when you consider Walker's longtime ties to the private prison industry, maybe it makes a lot of sense. Since FUBARing state prison staffing would be just the excuse the ALEC boys need to sell off management and employment to some campaign contributor.

  4. What happened at Green Bay wasn't due to officer staffing, and the officer hurt is an excellent, very experienced CO. From what I've heard so far he's a hero (and he's been a big hero in the past), but there will probably be very little if any recognition of what he did (such is the life of a CO).

    The situation with the attack, and the lockdowns are from efforts by prison staff to move in an entirely new direction with the use of segregation, and discipline. As a response to a movement in this country over solitary confinement (which these people are calling Wisconsin's segregation cells).

    The officers are calling it "Hug A Thug". It's a good idea to not harshly discipline inmates if they are acting out due to a mental illness, but there are some inmates that want to live in a segregation unit and they'll do what it takes to stay in segregation (quite possibly the reason for the attrack). Reducing the number of days confined in segregation for fighting, has given a green light for fighting. They had to many fights and they locked the prison down.