Dispelling the rumors about WSP
This column appeared in the Saturday, August 24, 2019 edition of the Rawlins Times.
It is not news to the people of Rawlins that the Wyoming State Penitentiary faces a staffing crisis. Neither is it news to the Wyoming Public Employees Association (WPEA).
For several months, our members have raised concerns to us and through us to prison administration about the amount of mandatory overtime being required and its impact on employee morale. Our members see veteran co-workers taking retirement or jobs out of state rather than work under the stress created by short staffing.
They worry that the facility has entered a negative feedback loop of short staffing, low morale and high turnover, resulting in further short staffing, and so on.
Correctional employees are exposed to events that lead to higher rates of PTSD, suicide and depression than other occupations. State and federal prison systems face many challenges recruiting and retaining staff. This is not news to Rawlins, but the current working conditions at the WSP leads many of our members and other employees to fear a crisis.
When WPEA recently spent three days in Rawlins, we heard about the consequences from corrections officers, supervisors, classified staff, and more surprisingly: the hotel desk clerk, other state employees and poignantly, from the spouses of several staff.
While staffing issues are not news for the WSP, the current situation cannot continue. Mandatory overtime with shifts up to sixteen hours, sometimes with only one day notice, is wrecking staff morale. This is not unknown to the inmates. They know that security is tired. They see posts going empty or on reduced hours.
Our members have shared concerns that the movement of inmates to other states is part of a plan to reduce population and staff at the WSP – maybe to sabotage the Legislative direction to repair and maintain the WSP.
While WPEA has found no evidence of such a plot, it is always easier to invent conspiracies than to confront problems that take a long time to solve.
The booming energy industries in Carbon County continue to contribute to staffing issues at the WSP. Not only do wind and oil compete directly for employees, they drive up the cost of housing.
According to the Wyoming Community Development Authority, Carbon County’s supply of affordable housing priced under $219,000 was 663 units short of demand in 2018.
The ability to recruit and retain enough staff has been a challenge for the facility for years. In the past, it has been cited as a reason to move the prison out of Rawlins. Echoes of these conversations continue to haunt the community and create uncertainty.
This further erodes trust and makes it harder for the community to attract investments in housing and businesses. The lack of affordable, quality housing makes it harder to recruit and retain staff. These rumors and concerns create their own feedback cycle of negativity within the community.
While mandatory overtime is the biggest issue for staff today, there are a host of other problems that have gone on for years and must be addressed. If the state cannot afford stab vests or reliable radios for corrections officers, then there are problems other than salaries that need immediate attention.
In response to these concerns, WPEA has asked prison leadership for information on turnover trends and its plans to address the staffing situation. We have agreed to work together to make sure this issue gets the attention it needs, both immediately and as a long-term problem for our state.
For WPEA’s part, this means addressing some of the rumors and uncertainty that holds back real planning and keeps people focused on fear and blame instead of solutions.
There is hope for improvement. For example, WSP held a recruiting fair in Rawlins for all departments on August 12. Unlike past recruitment efforts, this was held at the facility to encourage locals to make the trip across I-80 as a first step to working there.
At the same time, the Department of Corrections has ramped up recruiting efforts overall. Director Lampert appeared this month at the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee to discuss the positive impact that the new POST pay scales are having on the retention of corrections officers.
Meanwhile, the same legislative committee is working with the Council of State Governments to reform Wyoming’s justice system to reduce parole and probation violations that return inmates to the penitentiary.
The Wyoming Legislature has acted to insure the WSP can remain operational for the balance of its fifty year design lifespan and create a savings account to construct a replacement at that time. It has, by rejecting alternatives, made a commitment to keeping the WSP under state management and in Rawlins.
Rawlins success in revitalizing its downtown over the past decade shows what the community is capable of achieving. The city, private developers and even the Department of Corrections has sought solutions to the housing situation in the past with mixed results.
However, there are new opportunities to work with the Wyoming Community Development Authority and the Wyoming Business Council on housing that the community could and should pursue.
Staffing has been an issue at the WSP for decades. While it is critical to address the immediate situation, long-term solutions are going to take sustained action from the local community in terms of housing options; the Department of Corrections in seeing through their efforts in staffing and maintaining the WSP, and the Wyoming Legislature in continuing to fund the investments in the facility and its workforce that are necessary for both to be safe, stable and successful.