The Maine State Prison in Warren. Credit: Gabor Degre | bdn

Corrections officers, their union representatives and prisoner advocates told a legislative committee Monday that a chronic and severe understaffing problem is causing pressure that could boil over in the Maine State Prison. In addition, they say it’s costing the state more than $1.5 million a year in mandatory overtime.

Independent state Rep. Bill Pluecker, whose district includes the Maine State Prison in Warren, says the main goal of his bill is to make it clear to corrections officers in the state of Maine that their work is valued and valuable. Currently, Maine’s corrections officers are paid lower wages than their counterparts everywhere else in New England. In addition, vacant positions keep piling up either because of retirement or turnover.

Jeremy Roberts, who works the second shift at the Maine State Prison, says mandated overtime is now taking a toll. He’s worked at the prison for ten years.

“Jan. 2019 we had a group of inmates causing issues daily. In three weeks, 15 working days, I stayed late nine of the 15. Two of those days I was mandated to stay to 3:30 am, which is a six-hour mandate,” he says.

Roberts says he was then expected to report back to work at 1 p.m. the following day. He says the double shifts every week continued from February to Thanksgiving of last year, with additional shifts also added to his schedule.

“To say that the almost 700 hours of overtime I worked last year is a burden on my family is an understatement. In my time, I have seen no less than 600 officers quit. Very few ever make it to retirement,” he says.

Roberts says when he first took the job, the second shift was short-staffed with about 26 officers, but now it’s down to as few as half that number. At times, the ratio of corrections officers to prisoners is 1:85. And Pluecker says it’s a problem that shows no sign of letting up.

“Over the course of 2019, we saw staffing vacancies at the Maine State Prison increase by almost 30 percent. The low unemployment rate of the state has continued to compound issues, and this pattern is likely to continue if it’s not addressed by the Legislature,” he says.

Supporters of the bill point out that beginning corrections officers earn about $10,000 less per year than law enforcement officers in the Department of Public Safety. Raising the rate, they say, would go a long way toward attracting and retaining experienced corrections staff and alleviating pressures so many of them face.

“We had a case at MSP years ago with a young lady who was told she had to stay. She contacted her day care because she couldn’t have child support. Her kids were gonna be left alone. She tried to tell them that, ‘I can’t stay.’ She ended up leaving. She ended up being suspended for that,” says Jim Mackie, a staff representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 93.

The emergency bill, which would take a two-thirds vote to win support in the Legislature, would cost between $6 million and $10 million, says independent state Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos of Friendship. But he supports the additional investment.

“The biggest thing I’m worried about is this frustration is going to boil over. Human nature will take over, tempers will be lost and inevitably the end result is going to be more expensive than fixing this,” he says.

Evangelos says mandatory 18-hour shifts have resulted in lockdowns because there are not enough guards for the shift to protect prisoners. It also means the prison isn’t able to offer programming and counseling designed to help prisoners with reentry to the community.

Although there was no formal opposition to the bill, the deputy director of the Bureau of Human Resources urged lawmakers to wait for the results of an upcoming study on state employees’ classification and compensation and to address any pay disparities through collective bargaining rather than a bill.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.