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Increased wages brings in 26 new COs to Wyo. DOC

The department’s retention rate has nearly hit 90% over the last 14 months; the DOC credits its lenient uniform rules, social media access during breaks, flexible work schedules and other initiatives

Wyoming Department of Corrections

The Wyoming Department of Corrections recently moved more than 200 inmates to an institution out of state due to staffing shortages, but over 25 correctional officer positions have been filled since wages were raised this month.

Wyoming Department of Corrections

By Hannah Shields
Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, Cheyenne

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The Wyoming Department of Corrections recently moved more than 200 inmates to an institution out of state due to staffing shortages, but over 25 correctional officer positions have been filled since wages were raised this month.

Members of the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee asked DOC Director Dan Shannon on Tuesday about the recent move of 240 inmates to a nationally accredited correctional facility in Mississippi.

The director said the department asked several county jails within Wyoming if they could take on the inmates, but each reported “their own concern with staffing issues.”

“To move these inmates out of state is nothing I’m certainly proud of,” Shannon said. “But I base my decision on community safety, our staff safety and the avoidance of getting into constitutional issues inside of our prisons.”

Staff shortages, safety concerns

Shannon told lawmakers that out of the department’s 1,023 funded positions — 521 of which are uniform positions — there are a little over 130 vacancies. There is a 33% vacancy rate at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins and a 43% vacancy rate at the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk.

The department needed to fill 43 to 47 positions before it could consider bringing back those 240 inmates “safely,” he said.

The department’s retention rate, on the other hand, has been at nearly 90% within the past 14 months. Shannon attributed the success with keeping employees to the DOC’s relaxed uniform policies, allowing social media access during breaks and more flexible work schedules, among other efforts.

In the past year, uniformed staff retention rates increased by 3%, and parole agents increased by 5%.

“We clearly are retaining staff, but we’re not receiving applications,” Shannon said. “We continue to significantly be challenged in staff recruitment.”

The shortage of applications to fill these positions is not just a Wyoming issue, he added, but is seen in correctional facilities across the country. Lack of staffing in the Wyoming State Penitentiary negatively impacts the facility’s ability to provide a proper and safe environment to supervise inmates, Shannon said.

JAC co-Chair Sen. Tara Nethercott , R- Cheyenne, said the focus shouldn’t be on bringing the 240 inmates back, but rather making sure the DOC is able to adequately staff its facilities.

“The primary purpose as to why we sent those inmates to Mississippi was because we didn’t have sufficient staffing for a safe and secure environment,” Nethercott said.

The department increased its wages on Dec. 1, from an hourly pay of $20.06 to $25.26. Since then, 26 correctional officers were hired to join the academy in January.

“Just in a matter of weeks, we’ve had 28 people lined up,” Shannon told lawmakers.

This was a significant increase in applicants compared to the rest of the year. The Wyoming State Penitentiary received only 19 applications from January through October, and the Wyoming Women’s Center received eight. On average, only 8% of applications meet job qualifications, Shannon said.

The director said the DOC also shortened its hiring process. It used to take 90 days for an applicant to be hired, but new changes in policy allowed the department to virtually hire “on the spot.”

Leading nationally, internationally

The DOC reported success in the rate of recidivism of inmates released from its institutions — 91% of those released from institutions did not return because of a new felony, Shannon reported, and 77% of those released did not return at all.

This data is based on three years from an individual’s release, Shannon said, which also included technical violations. To put it simply, only nine out of 100 released individuals returned to prison, and only 23 out of 100 released individuals returned for any reason, three years out from their release date.

“I believe we can compete with any correctional agency on those numbers,” Shannon said.

The director attributed the success of the released individuals to the DOC’s inmate programs, which was the only area not reduced in the department’s recent budget cuts.

Inmate programs include cognitive intervention, substance use programming and sex offense treatment. Access to mental health care is a high priority in the agency, Shannon said.

Nethercott noted that these were the “most important facts” heard by lawmakers that day.

“The take away there is that our prison system, the Department of Corrections, I should say, is working from both a deterrent and rehabilitative standpoint,” Nethercott said.

The DOC was also recently recognized as the top correctional agency out of 14 in the western states. In October, the department was selected to represent the United States in an International Correctional Directors meeting in Belgium, which came at no cost to the state, Shannon said.

“It’s my belief the hardworking success of our staff at the Department of Corrections is not recognized on the national and international level,” he said.


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