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Journal Times editorial: Prison guard shortage is a complex issue
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Journal Times editorial: Prison guard shortage is a complex issue

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A report earlier this month in The Journal Times detailed some of the issues contributing to the state’s prison guard shortage.

Since June 7, correctional officers from facilities around the state have begun reporting to central Wisconsin for two-week stints at the Waupun Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Dodge County. Those relocations, of 22 correctional workers being sent to Waupun per two-week pay period, are expected to continue through the end of 2021.

According to the DOC, Waupun currently employs 162 full-time correctional officers and sergeants, even though it’s supposed to have 296. That means 134 jobs are vacant, a vacancy rate of 45.3%.

Even measures such as offering a $2,000 sign-on bonus for new guards at Waupun, giving veterans at Waupun extra incentives, closing a cell hall to lower the prison’s population — haven’t alleviated the problem.

Employers all around the state and country are experiencing problems hiring staff so it’s no wonder that prisons are as well.

But unlike restaurants or shops that can close for a day, prisons and jails don’t have that option. It’s a 24-7 operation and there is no getting around that.

In May 2019, four months after Gov. Tony Evers took office, new guards at six Wisconsin prisons (including Waupun) got a 14% increase in starting hourly wage — from $16.65 up to $19.03 — and certain veteran workers got $5/hour pay boosts.

But it hasn’t been enough.

One small thing the Legislature is doing to try to recruit workers is revoking a state rule that prohibits advertising for open correctional officer positions on billboards. That seems to be an obvious thing to do. But it’s certainly not that simple.

The pay bonuses are a good idea, but the state also needs to look at the bigger picture and ask: Does every individual behind bars need to be there? That doesn’t mean advocating to open the doors and let everyone out. It means taking a careful look at the different circumstances and determining what is right for that situation. Many offenders still need to be locked up. We only have to look at Milwaukee and see the car thieves who keep committing crimes because they are never really published.

For now, it sounds like the state is doing what it has to do by having staff work in Waupun for two-week stints. But that is only a short-term solution to a very complicated problem.

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