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Understaffed Wyo. prison faces safety concerns

"It is indeed a safety problem."

By BEN NEARY, Associated Press Writer
The Associated Press

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — More than a third of the correctional officer jobs at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins are unfilled, making the remaining officers work extraordinary hours in a high-security environment.

State corrections officials say the shortages haven't affected safety at the prison, which now holds more than 600 inmates. But the head of the guards' union says officers are working so many hours that it's grinding them down and affecting their judgment.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has a long-running lawsuit against the state over conditions at the Rawlins prison, says it's concerned the officer shortage may have contributed to an incident in which an inmate was beaten by other inmates early this year.

Dee Garrison, who has worked at the prison since 1998, is president of the Wyoming Association of Correctional Employees, the union representing about 50 officers at the Rawlins prison.

"You're tired, you're exhausted. You're not as patient as you should be," Garrison said. "And in a prison, you definitely need to have patience, because it's a people business and you're dealing with people who do not have patience. You lose your sense of patience, you lose your sense of really great judgment."

Bob Lampert, director of the Wyoming Department of Corrections, said the department maintains a minimum staffing level at the Rawlins prison that "exceeds almost any facility in the nation."

Lampert also says the long hours aren't exhausting officers. "It depends on the individual," he said. "Some individuals have a tolerance for long hours that never affects their performance."

The Rawlins prison is authorized to have 322 employees in security positions but as of early April it had 116 vacancies _ more than 36 percent of authorized positions _ department spokeswoman Melinda Brazzale said. Of those vacancies, she said 107 were in correctional officer positions.

The officers averaged 23 hours of overtime per month from April 2005 through March 2007, according to Corrections Department figures. Officials say that figure also includes a handful of other employees such as food service workers. All officers log about five hours a month of overtime attending daily 15-minute security briefings at each shift change.

Warden Michael J. Murphy said almost all the overtime is voluntary.

"There are a lot of people who really want the overtime," Murphy said. "They have truck payments, medical bills."

One officer _ whom Corrections Department officials wouldn't name _ routinely works 16 hours a day, five days a week.

"He wants to do it," Murphy said. "We make him take his two days off."

Corrections officials say the energy boom in Wyoming and rising housing costs in Rawlins have made it tough to recruit and retain correctional officers. Of 168 new officers the department recruited from around the country from January 2006 through the end of March, 46 already have quit.

Steve Lindley, assistant director of corrections, said the state increased pay for correctional officer staff in January. Correctional officers now earn about $33,600 per year after three years on the job, up from about $32,000.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal says the state has tried to address the officer shortage by offering bonuses and higher salaries, but he adds: "I think we're going to have to continue to raise the ante."

The governor said he doesn't believe the prison staff situation has compromised security.

Rich Roberts, a spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations, said it's clear correctional officers at the Rawlins prison are suffering.

"It is indeed a safety problem," Roberts said of the situation at Rawlins. "Whether an officer's on the street, or an officer in a corrections facility, he's often called on to make some very quick and very critical decisions about how to act. If you're fatigued, guaranteed, your thinking processes are slow. Your reaction times are going to be slow."

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