La.'s prison system seeks budget bump to offer raises, incentives for COs

The state has struggled in recent years to attract and retain COs and its facilities remain chronically understaffed


By Blake Paterson
The Advocate

BATON ROUGE, La. — Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration is asking for a $21.5 million budget increase for Louisiana's prison system to fund a 10% pay raise for entry-level correctional officers and stem a sky-high turnover rate among guards.

Louisiana has struggled in recent years to attract and retain prison guards and its facilities remain chronically understaffed. A measly pay structure paired with grueling 12-hour shifts in non-air-conditioned prisons has made the job a tough sell.

The Department of Corrections currently has 411 unfilled guard positions — a vacancy rate of more than 36%. The positions that are filled face a constant churn, with a year-over-year turnover rate of 73%, according to Thomas Bickham, an undersecretary at the department.

Edwards' chief budget architect, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, called it "the biggest revolving door in state government" during a presentation before lawmakers in February, adding that the hefty budget increase is needed to offer more lucrative employment incentives.

Those proposals include a 10% pay raise for entry-level correctional officers that would bump the starting wage from $13.97 to $15.37 per hour, upping the starting salary for cadets to around $32,000 annually.

On top of that, officials are exploring a retention pay incentive that would add 50 cents to an officer's hourly wages during their first full year on the job, followed by a 70 cent, 90 cent and one dollar raise in subsequent years.

"The retention pay is to stop the bleeding and the [10% bump] is to get more fresh blood into the system," Bickham said. "It's hard to attract them and when we do get them, it's hard to keep them."

Louisiana's lawmakers approved a slight raise for corrections officers in 2018 that helped in the short term with hiring and retaining guards, but Dardenne said those gains have since worn away and "the cycle has continued to repeat itself."

The shortage in staffing has caused overtime costs at the agency to balloon, and has sometimes resulted in unsafe working environments for guards. A female correctional officer was raped at knifepoint last summer while stationed alone on a cell block at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel.

Without the funding, officials fear federal intervention, likely in the form of a consent decree from the U.S. Department of Justice — a costly legal maneuver that could force the state to spend millions more on upgrading its dilapidated carceral system.

"We're very fortunate that the state of Louisiana has avoided major problems in its prison system in recent years," Dardenne said. "We must hope that that continues, but the biggest threat to that, I would suggest to you, is the inability to keep corrections workers."

The funding request comes as part of of Edwards' proposed $36.6 billion spending plan for the fiscal year beginning on July 1, which requires approval from state lawmakers.

The Department of Corrections typically starts the year underfunded, and banks on a supplemental bill later in the year to fill in any budget holes, Bickham said. The supplemental bill to covers last year's overruns is expected to include roughly $74 million for the agency, according to Jacques Berry, the Department of Administration's director of policy and communications.

This year, the agency hopes to get the funding upfront and has requested roughly $21.5 million for salary expenses, $7.9 million for supplies, $6 million prison medical expenses, as well as $23.8 million to pay for housing inmates in local jails, Bickham said.

"What we've tried to do, and are trying to do, and its going to be an arduous process is to try and right-size the corrections budget so we are funding them as they need to be funded and not having to constantly come back in a supplemental bill midyear and pay for more than had originally been anticipated," Dardenne said.

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(c)2021 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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