In Need of Correction

Arizona's prison system is overloaded and its staff is overwhelmed

Arizona's prisons, put under a microscope after a hostage crisis earlier this year, have a long list of problems, including a rapidly growing population, overworked and underpaid employees and an abysmal correctional-officer turnover rate that has resulted in an inexperienced and undertrained staff.

Following that 15-day hostage situation in Buckeye's Lewis Prison Complex last January, a Blue Ribbon panel assembled by Gov. Janet Napolitano cited "institutional complacency and a collective lack of situational awareness" as factors leading to the attempted prison break.

Tucson Police Department Assistant Chief Roberto Villaseñor, a member of the administrative review panel, said Arizona correctional officers don't make enough money, especially given their workload.

A correctional officer makes $12 an hour in the state, with a possible 2.5 percent raise every year. No officer can make more than $31,000 per year.

"Increasing the pay is the absolute must," said Charles Flanagan, warden of the nine-unit Arizona State Prison Complex in Tucson. "We know that we're $4,000 below the market."

Villaseñor said the low pay leads to serious problems.

"Your caliber of employee suffers," he said. "If you can't keep your best employees, then naturally it's going to hurt you. ... It's a vicious cycle."

Villaseñor recalls that a review team found a correctional officer sleeping on the job days after the hostage situation at the Lewis complex.

"It's just incredulous that that could occur," he said. "The working environment (the officers) are in is obviously stressful; the people they deal with are unpleasant, and they feel they are not compensated properly."

In addition to the low pay, Flanagan said his complex is understaffed. The Arizona Legislature, under pressure due to a budget crisis, has mandated that state prison complexes operate with a 10 percent staff vacancy. At the same time, state prisons in general are overcrowded, housing more prisoners than their capacities allow.

Arizona has a staff vacancy rate of 15.2 percent, with 946 vacant correctional officer positions. The Lewis complex has a rate of 19 percent, with 200 unfilled positions.

A year ago, a similar mandate from the Legislature put the Tucson complex's vacancy rate at 17 percent. That rate improved to 5 percent later in the year, but then Flanagan had to fire 32 employees--20 officers and 12 general staff members--to meet the newer 10 percent vacancy requirement.

One minimum security unit at the Tucson complex holds 456 prisoners, some in tents and trailers bought 15 years ago to solve a "temporary" capacity problem. The officer to prisoner ratio often reaches 1 to 120, Flanagan said, adding that at a low medium security unit with 500 beds, the ratio reaches 1 officer to 60 prisoners if he is "lucky."

In a "worst case scenario" at Rincon, a high-medium security unit, Flanagan said an officer may stand alone among 30 prisoners because the doors must be manually opened on the floor--an outdated feature of the 1978 unit, which is the only high-medium security facility in the state without electronically operated doors.

Brian Adams, Flanagan's administrative assistant, said the prison has 4,196 beds and, though the prison population can reach that number or above, often sits under maximum occupancy because the complex acts as a hub for the state, housing many prisoners only temporarily.

Arizona has struggled to house its prisoners for years. With a prison population of 32,843, the state needs over 4,000 new beds just to meet current needs. The population is expected to grow by around 139 prisoners per month, and--because prisons already double-bunk, convert day rooms into dormitories and place prisoners in tents--the Department of Corrections has already had to move 2,100 prisoners out of state.

"To relieve that situation, it was just absolutely necessary to send these inmates elsewhere temporarily," said Cam Hunter, public information officer at the department. "It's never easy to move prison populations, but it's a reality of where we're at right now."

The Morey unit of the Lewis Prison Complex houses 840 inmates, though it is designed for only 800. The attempted prison break on Jan. 18--which turned into the longest prison hostage situation in U.S. history--was initiated by inmate Ricky K. Wassenaar, who subdued a correctional officer then in charge of 19 unrestrained inmates in the kitchen.

"We have more inmates than we know what to do with, and we're so low on staff," Hunter said.

Villaseñor said the combination of low pay and a dangerous work environment leads to a high turnover rate, which is supported by his panel's discovery that many officers at the Morey unit have less than a year of experience. The morning of January's attempted prison break, 14 of the 20 officers had one year of experience or less.

"Many people in corrections use it as an entry level into law enforcement," which pays better, Villaseñor said.

The panel reported that the Nevada Department of Corrections set up a recruiting station at the Circle K near the Correctional Officer Training Academy in Tucson. They offered more money to the cadets, and "half of the class went to work for the state of Nevada."

"We actually caught them in our parking lot here," COTA Commander John R. Hallahan said.

He said COTA trains its cadets using state money, so Arizona has paid to train correctional officers who go to work in other states for more pay.

Out-of-state prison administrators have even thanked Hallahan for training their officers so well, he said.

The Department of Correction's budget for fiscal year 2005 is nearly $652 million, up more than $14 million from last year. Hunter said the department requested $839 million.

Much of the new money will go toward building 2,000 new beds and restoring 1,350 beds that legislators ordered closed last year. (Despite the order, the beds never actually closed due to overcrowding.)

Hunter said the Blue Ribbon panel's recommendations--increased training, higher pay, better weapons, more correctional officers--will have to wait for next year's budget.

"This budget has nothing to do with any of the recommendations the Blue Ribbon panel made," Hunter said.

Because of the swelling prison population, the department will have to use the increased funds just to house new prisoners and build facilities, according to Hunter.

The $14 million hike is a 2.2 percent increase from last year's budget. If the prison population grows as expected this year, and the 2,100 out-of-state prisoners return to Arizona, the population will increase by 11.5 percent.

Hunter said correctional officer salaries will increase by $1,000 this year because of a statewide pay hike, but any other increases or substantial adjustments to combat pay cuts after promotions require money the department doesn't have. This year, the department asked for $65 million for employee salary increases, but received nothing.

"Our employee pay increase surely will be looked at next time," Hunter said.

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