Vt. prison system a growth industry
By LOUIS PORTER Vermont Press Bureau | June 11,2007
MONTPELIER — The Department of Corrections is fast becoming one of the largest employers among the agencies and branches of state government.
Roughly 1,171 people work inside the state's prisons or in the probation and parole system as caseworkers, corrections officers and at other tasks. Only the Agency of Transportation, with about 1,224 workers, has more employees. And the number of corrections workers is growing rapidly as the number of inmates and released offenders increases. As recently as 1997, there were only 812 corrections workers and 1,181 transportation employees.
Tuesday, Gov. James Douglas recognized the work of the Department of Corrections workers, with a proclamation in their honor and by signaling out some workers for individual recognition.
The Department of Corrections has taken steps to try to improve employee morale, by reducing required overtime, increasing pay, clarifying the rules governing prison work and reducing prison overcrowding. The turnover of prison workers — especially among the corrections officers who guard and run the facilities — has declined, Commissioner of Corrections Robert Hofmann said.
Overall turnover has declined over the past year or two from 40 percent annually to about 27 percent. And much of turnover is among temporary employees.
Among full-time corrections officers the decline has been even steeper.
"I am very encouraged," Hofmann said. "It was really one of my major concerns."
The state has given a roughly $2 million pay increase to corrections employees — particularly corrections officers — and added some additional workers.
"We know that the commissioner has been working hard to address issues of workplace stress and to enhance pay to reduce turnover and employee discontent," Defender General Matthew Valerio said. "We don't see, from the defense perspective, significant differences in the issues that come to us."
The state has also reduced prison populations.
That, however, has come at a price, as more inmates have been shipped out of state. Housing Vermont offenders in private prisons outside the state's borders is cheaper, allows for less crowded conditions and gives the state some flexibility. But it has at times been controversial among those working for prisoners' rights and among inmates themselves.
Most prisons in Vermont are now close to or below their rated capacity," Hofmann said.
"We have substantially reduced overcrowding," he said.
Dominick Damato knows the system well. Damato began, in the 1980s, as a temporary worker, became a full-time corrections officer and is now an assistant superintendent at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield.
"Things have improved dramatically," said Damato, who has in the past testified at the Legislature as a Vermont State Employee Association member. "Turnover has improved and stability has gotten better."
Damato said he knows the job of working inside a prison will remain a difficult one.
"The challenges of the job itself have always been an issue, and continue to be and pretty much always will be," he said.
But changes like the implementation of restraint chairs for inmates who are violent or dangerous and the arrival of "nutra-loaf" the disagreeable food which allows prison workers to feed inmates without giving them utensils or trays if they have misbehaved, have improved working inside the facilities, he said.
"We were dealing with very violent behaviors in a pretty prehistoric way" including restraining inmates to their metal bunks or the facility floors, said Damato, one of the corrections workers thanked by Douglas and Hofmann Tuesday.
Valerio said since corrections workers had other methods of handling inmates in similar situations before the restraint chairs and nutra-loaf were used, he does not think they improved conditions in the prisons.
"I don't know that the implementation of those two things had done much to influence the culture in corrections either way," Valerio said. "Those types of things had been previously available to corrections to deal with difficult inmates in the past."
Valerio said the state should continue to do what it has done in the past and compare its corrections system against itself and its own benchmarks.
"If we compare Vermont's corrections system to others around the country, we are a model," he said. "The thing I fear is that we will begin to import things that are inconsistent with our traditional Vermont ideas about what corrections should be."
The increase in the number of women offenders in Vermont also creates its own issues.
"There are always the challenges that have been ongoing with overcrowding," said Donna Pratt, a living unit supervisor at the Dale Women's Correctional Facility in Waterbury. "We usually are at a point where we are pretty seriously overcrowded or bulging at the seams."
The population of women inmates, while still a small share overall, has been growing rapidly in recent years.
The smaller population makes the job of corrections workers more manageable in some ways, said Pratt, who was also recognized by Douglas and Hofmann this week.
But there are additional challenges as well. For one thing the facilities which house women — Dale is a former part of the Vermont State Hospital and the Windsor prison was the state's prison farm — were not designed for women inmates, Pratt said.
"Women have different issues and challenges than men," she said.
For one thing, it can in some cases be more difficult for women inmates to find work and housing when they are released, Pratt said.
"The majority certainly of the Department of Corrections employees are dedicated and care about the work we do and enjoy our jobs and want to make things better for the inmates and the community as a whole," she said.
Annie Noonan, the head of the Vermont State Employee's Association, said it is in the best interests of the union and the state to figure out how to get and keep good corrections workers.
"I think we have to jointly figure out ways to encourage people to look at the corrections department for employment," she said. "Both the VSEA and the department have a mutual interest in making sure we can recruit and retain employees."
Although pay has been increased for corrections officers, it may need to be raised again, Noonan said. And the department should hire employees on a full-time instead of temporary basis, she said.
As the number of corrections workers has increased, so has the effort the union spends on their issues.
"We do spend a fair amount of time on corrections issues," Noonan said. "It has always has been a difficult work environment."
The governor agreed.
"It is a very difficult task dealing with a part of our population that is not always cooperative," Douglas said Tuesday. "They are doing a great job."
Douglas said he hopes that the growth in the corrections $128 million budget will decrease as measures such as term probation — which limits how long those released from prison are on probation — are brought online. And the state is trying to site a new work camp, which is a cheaper alternative to prison for less dangerous offenders.
"We are taking a lot of steps that I think will be helpful," he said. "The Legislature is understandably concerned about the cost trend and we will continue to look to moderate that."
Still, the Department of Corrections' status as not only one of the largest employers in state government, but in Vermont overall, is likely to remain in place at least for now.
"We are probably one of the top dozen employers in the state of Vermont," Hofmann said.
Contact Louis Porter at email@example.com.