Where collective bargaining and politics fit into prison staff shortages

By: - May 13, 2022 6:01 am
A Green Bay Correctional Institution watch tower and guard. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

A Green Bay Correctional Institution watch tower and guard. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Myriad factors are fueling staffing shortages within correctional facilities, as Wisconsin Examiner recently reported. These include working conditions faced by many jail and prison staff and  mass incarceration, which has far outpaced the hiring of new staff.

Sean Daley, a business agent and member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 32, highlights the hit correctional staff took when Wisconsin reduced public employees’ collective bargaining power. “In 2010,” Daley tells Wisconsin Examiner, “when workers enjoyed the freedom to collectively bargain over wages, hours and working conditions, the vacancy rate system-wide was less than 3%. After the workers had their freedom to collectively bargain over wages, hours and working conditions removed by partisan legislation, that number has exponentially increased each year to its current vacancy rate of somewhere just under 30% system-wide, last time I checked.”

Vacancy rates across the Department of Corrections (DOC) vary, with facilities like Waupun Correctional Institution running upwards to 40% vacancy rates for staff overall. The DOC, however, does not include local jails which are under the jurisdiction of county governments. Daley notes that other public safety jobs like police and fire did not see their collective bargaining rights weakened in the same way. “Do those units [jobs] have similar vacancy rates? They sure don’t,” he adds.

“Restoration of worker voices through the freedom to collectively bargain is what hasn’t been tried since the trend began,” he says. “The current governor did put collective bargaining into his first budget which was removed on partisan lines. Perhaps politics is more important to some than meaningfully attempting to fix an overbearing problem.”

Some have also pointed to the very design and age of many prisons in the state as a contributing factor. In Wisconsin, some of the oldest prisons are also some of the largest, and can be inefficiently designed. Daley, however, isn’t so sure that’s a big part of the problem. The prisons in Waupun and Green Bay are both large, old facilities, he points out, but, he says,  “they’re not necessarily unique in being significantly short-staffed.”

“They are known to house extremely violent and dangerous offenders and I think it can be argued that the level of security plays into their difficulty to manage more so than the physicality of the facility,” he says, adding that a correctional facility in Portage, a newer institution compared to Waupun or Green Bay, has struggles with staffing.

Dynamics can be further complicated by the reliance of some communities on correctional jobs. Daley does not agree with prison abolitionists that all such facilities should be dismantled. “Whether or not a community benefits economically from the presence of a prison is merely a by-product of the fact that even with much-needed comprehensive reform, prisons will always be needed.”

The issues contributing to the waves of staff vacancy across prisons and jails nationwide run even deeper. “Bully front supervisors and nepotism also play into the gaping vacancy rates,” says Daley. “It’s a tough enough job as it is,” he adds. “Add in that a lot of the supervisors think they’re ‘top-cops’ and spend their time tirelessly harassing staff with weak investigations and it just adds to the vacancy rates.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.