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Pa. DOC seeks budget increase amid staffing, security concerns

In an effort to boost staffing, the Pennsylvania DOC reduced the CO’s minimum age requirement to 18


The DOC would receive $3.3 billion across all funds in Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposed budget for fiscal 2025, with $3.2 billion coming from the state’s general fund. Institutional operations account for more than $2.9 billion of the request.


By Eric Scicchitano
The Daily Item, Sunbury, Pa.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Staff wellness, facility security and inmate recidivism were central themes during Friday’s budget hearing testimony by the secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections before the state House Appropriations Committee.

The DOC would receive $3.3 billion across all funds in Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposed budget for fiscal 2025, with $3.2 billion coming from the state’s general fund. Institutional operations account for more than $2.9 billion of the request.

The total request is 6.7% greater than the $3.1 billion budgeted in the current year.

Republican Rep. Seth Grove, minority chair of the House Appropriations Committee, used his time in questioning Secretary Laurel Harry to show that the prison population fell from more than 51,000 in 2011 to nearly 39,000 in 2023 while the department budget continues to grow. He said revenue growth isn’t projected to surpass 2% anytime soon and asked what the DOC can do to budget within its projected growth.

Harry called the insights fair and said she hoped anticipated savings on prescription medication and the continued hiring of corrections officers to fill vacancies would help cut expenses. She noted that the mandatory overtime rate dropped from 21.5% to 12.8%.

“We don’t want folks to be burned out,” she said.

However, she said hiring remains a struggle as about 27% of new officers leave the DOC within their first 18 months. She added that hiring and retaining nurses is even more challenging than it is for corrections officers.

“Just as we’re filling positions we have folks retiring and we have that washout rate,” Harry said.

The cost of overtime was budgeted at $128 million last year. It’s expected to reach $142 million this year and grow to $167 million next year, Harry said. One bit of relief may come through the hiring of out-of-state corrections officers. Law on civil service forbids out-of-state hires, however, Harry said the Office of Administration is working to produce a waiver specific for the DOC. Legislation to allow such hiring is also pending in the General Assembly.

Also, the DOC lowered the minimum age for corrections officers to 18 years old. Harry said she doesn’t expect a “massive influx” of candidates at this age but for those who are hired, she said an enhanced mentoring and training program is in place.

Harry said the DOC is proposing to create a new wellness coordinator position that would help improve the physical and mental well-being of staff. She said an employee wellness survey and a related summit are also planned.

Staff can access services and referrals through the state employee assistance program for everything from family issues, substance abuse, stress management and financial issues. As it stands, she said female employees are far more likely to take advantage of the program than male employees, citing stigma around seeking help for mental health.

In discussions about facility security, Rep. James Struzzi, R- Indiana, asked about incoming mail for inmates. The state shifted in 2018 to process almost all mail sent to inmates at a third-party scanning facility in Florida. The mail is reproduced and the originals destroyed as a safety procedure. However, this doesn’t apply to legal mail.

Struzzi said he learned of increases in drugs smuggled into state facilities through legal mail. Harry acknowledged this, saying the DOC had “about 34 significant finds in our legal mail.”

Among those finds at an undisclosed facility was the interception of seven pieces of paper soaked in fentanyl, Harry said, a highly potent and deadly opioid. Each sheet could be cut into 200 separate doses, potentially leading to 1,400 doses and any number of fatal overdoses.

Rep. Napoleon Nelson, D- Montgomery, asked about the $50 million sought for inmate education. He called education the “single greatest component of recidivism” and asked why that expense shouldn’t be far greater.

Harry didn’t address whether more funds should be spent on education, but she spoke about its impact.

The GED pass rate among inmates is higher than the general public, she said. Recidivism is falling, down to 54.8% compared to 62% two years prior. She said education and vocational training are equally important to improving the prospects that inmates successfully transition back into their communities upon release.

“Our three-year recidivism rate is the lowest it’s been in 20 years,” Harry said. “We want folks to have a job and get the skills and certifications while they’re inside.


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