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Corrections secretary warns of dangers from NM correctional officer shortage

Secretary Gregg Marcantel told the Legislative Finance Committee that vacancy rates for corrections officers at three state prisons are running more than 40 percent

By Steve Terrell
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE, NM — New Mexico prisons have a basic problem, the state Corrections Department secretary told legislators Tuesday: Too many inmates and not enough guards.

Secretary Gregg Marcantel told the Legislative Finance Committee that vacancy rates for corrections officers at three state prisons are running more than 40 percent. Because of those high rates, officers have been forced to work mandatory overtime hours. The officers work an average of 24 overtime hours a week — and more at the prisons with higher vacancy rates. The average caseload for an officer is 110 inmates.

The staffing problem isn’t new. Corrections officers and the union that represents them have been petitioning, protesting and complaining about the situation for months. In August, employees of the Central New Mexico Correction Facility in Los Lunas demonstrated at a street corner near the prison with signs asking motorists to “Honk 4 safe working conditions.”

But Tuesday, it was the Cabinet secretary himself forcefully raising the issue.

Marcantel told the lawmakers that low staffing and low pay are causing problems. New Mexico pays corrections officers the second worst salaries in the nation, he said. Marcantel added that in recruiting corrections officers for the Penitentiary of New Mexico south of Santa Fe, the state competes with McDonald’s.

According to the Corrections Department website, cadets are paid $12.35 an hour and corrections officers start at $13.65. That works out to $25,688 and $28,392 a year before any overtime pay or shift differentials, which increase hourly pay.

The manpower shortage is causing morale issues, Marcantel said. “It results in anger, resentment, higher use of discipline. … When we’re tired, overworked and sleep deprived, our attention to detail decreases.”

To illustrate how these problems could get even worse, the secretary listed several recent prison riots in which under-staffing was a problem. There was one in May at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in Nebraska in which two inmates were killed; a riot last month in the Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, Okla., in which four inmates died; and a July 4 riot at private prison in Kingman, Ariz., that sent 13 people to the hospital and caused an estimated $1.9 million in property damage.

Marcantel wasn’t the only speaker presenting this message to the committee. Several corrections officers from the Penitentiary of New Mexico also spoke of the need for higher pay.

“No matter how many hours you work, we’re there to protect the community,” Sgt. David Verrett said. “But we do not have enough officers to do our job. … Let us go home and see our families more, and take a vacation now and then. We’re not trying to get rich.”

Miles Conway, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said after the hearing that Marcantel is “100 percent focused on the correct issues.”

Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, commended Marcantel for “standing up for your employees.”

But Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, told the secretary, “The salaries, they’re low. But they’re not the only ones [in state government]. Look at the teachers.”

While he spoke at length about the problems with salaries and staffing. Marcantel didn’t include more money for salaries in his budget request, which will be considered by the Legislature in the next regular session. Instead, he said he has been working with the State Personnel Office to draft a public safety pay plan that will propose higher salaries for corrections officers and other “hard-to-field” positions.

“I’ve got a commitment from the Governor’s Office to back the [State Personnel Office] plan,” he said.

Conway, the AFSCME spokesman, said “The [state personnel] project to study and overhaul compensation rates for classified employees is incredibly important.” He said wage increases the union has won through legislative action in recent years have been merely “Band-Aids on the wound.” The proposed plan for the prison officers “will be huge by comparison.”

The Corrections Department since the middle of 2012 has had 2,447 authorized full-time positions.

The 45 percent vacancy rate for correctional officers at the prison in Roswell is the department’s highest. That’s followed by the prisons in Grants and Springer, where the rate is 43 percent at each facility. The prison south of Santa Fe has one of the lower vacancy rates in the state, 22 percent.

The Corrections Department will be requesting a $12 million budget increase.

More than $7.6 million of the proposed increase would go to handle inmate growth. Marcantel said that by next July the state prison system will be at 98 percent capacity.

Most of the growth in inmates has been among women, according to Corrections Department figures. The number of female inmates is 769, up from 614 in 2010. There are more than 6,300 male inmates, but that population has been growing at just over 1 percent a year and is expected to grow by less than 1 percent in the near future.

Marcantel said the state plans to move female inmates out of the privately operated facility in Grants to other prisons in the state, including the one in Springer, early next year. The current women’s prison will be used to house male sex offenders. Sen. Sanchez said many Grants residents are concerned about this and urged Marcantel to have community meetings there to hear those concerns.