Short of workers in more than a third of its security posts, the New Hampshire Department of Corrections continues to struggle to fully staff prisons across the state.
Currently, 179 of the 499 security staff positions are open, representing a 36% vacancy rate among guards, probation officers and investigators. Of the total staff of the Department of Corrections, 252 positions are unfilled, representing a vacancy rate of approximately 26%.
Department officials did not provide a breakdown of vacancies by facility, citing security concerns. However, according to an email sent by Commissioner Helen Hanks in January, 173 of 238 prison officer positions had been filled at the men’s prison in November 2021.
Between December and mid-March, the New Hampshire National Guard assisted in staffing the Concord Men’s State Prison. In April, the department told probation and parole officers they would be required to work a day shift every five weeks at the men’s prison. Unions for officers and their leaders have pushed back, fearing officers won’t be able to plan around court dates and other regular duties.
Seifu Ragassa, president of the New Hampshire Probation and Parole Officers Association Command Staff Union, said the Department of Corrections reversed its decision in May after conversations with both unions.
“These are our brothers and sisters in corrections, we would never take the position of not helping, but we just can’t give up our position,” Ragassa said. He said probation officers on parole would volunteer to fill the necessary shifts, instead of being forced.
However, the prison’s staffing problems persist as she struggles to hire guards and pays huge overtime to cover vacant shifts.
“We can’t afford to run prisons with a third of the workforce missing,” said Ragassa, who worked for the department for 20 years, including at the closed correctional facility in the region of lakes.
“It’s the lowest – I’ve never seen that,” he said.
Among New Hampshire correctional officers, the vacancy rate fluctuated between 8% and 19% between 2004 and 2017. In fiscal year 2016, the most recent year the agency released a detailed breakdown of positions vacancies in its annual report, the vacancy rate for correctional officers and parole probation officers combined was 14%, with 73 vacancies out of 538 funded positions.
“They’re so understaffed that they’re putting people in positions they’re not trained for,” said Christine Turgeon, communications manager for the Association of State Employees.
“It’s ridiculously scary, they take people who aren’t trained to work with prisoners, they don’t know who should be where.”
Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Richelle Angeli wrote in an email to Monitor that the ministry does not place workers in roles for which they are not specifically trained.
A performance audit of the department’s Legislative Budget Assistant security staff conducted more than a decade ago described a staffing environment “that could become unsustainable”.
“Over the past three fiscal years, DOC has operated its prisons with fewer uniformed employees, while increasing the percentage of total hours worked as overtime,” the auditors wrote in the November 2012 report, which in part recommended that the Department of Corrections undertake a formal workforce review.
In its response, the Department of Corrections cited a staffing assessment from 2004, at the time of its most recent official analysis, which found that Concord Men’s Prison required 371 staff “to operate at a normal level of activity”, or a minimum of 277 for critical cases. operations. At the time, the prison had 241 uniformed staff.
“Achieving the staffing levels identified by the analysis was and is not achievable under current budget constraints,” the department wrote.
In November 2021, there were 173 corrections officers at the men’s prison out of 238 assigned positions, according to an email Commissioner Hanks sent Corrections Officer Claudia Cass on Jan. 30, ahead of a wave of retirements from end of the year.
The Department of Corrections did not provide a more recent staffing assessment, but Angeli wrote in an email to Monitor that the department regularly analyzes staffing needs.
Corrections officers as well as other law enforcement agencies have long argued that 2011 changes to New Hampshire’s retirement system steered potential applicants away from jobs in the state.
Following legislation passed that year, the minimum length of service before retirement was increased from 20 to 25 years for prison officers. For employees hired after 2011 and those not yet vested in 2012, their five highest-earning years of employment do not count toward their pension income. The retirement system faces nearly $6 billion in debt it currently cannot pay, called “unfunded liabilities,” while cities and towns have been forced to pay more to cover these costs.
House Bill 1587, which passed the New Hampshire House and Senate, would again include those highest five years in retirement calculations, increasing future pensions. During a hearing of the Executive Departments and Senate Administration on the bill in April, the Director of Administration for the Department of Corrections, Jonathan Hanson, told lawmakers that forced overtime this year s amounted to nearly $17 million.
In early February, staffing issues at the men’s prison were compounded when the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office opened an investigation into 14 correctional officers for involvement or documentation related to a use of force incident against a prisoner. in 2021. Three of those officers had left prison or retired, but 11 current officers have been placed on administrative leave.
By April, two had returned to work. The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office announced on June 2 that the investigation was complete and no charges would be brought against the officers. The Department of Corrections wrote in a statement that all staff under investigation had returned to duty.
Former captain Dan Boynton retired from the department in December but was listed as one of the officers being investigated for documenting the use of force incident. Boynton said he was never contacted by the attorney general’s office or the department regarding the criminal investigation.
He wrote in an email to Monitor that because the staff under investigation have been placed on administrative leave, pressure has been put on other prison staff to compensate not only for the workload of eleven regular staff, but also the overtime they usually work.
“Most of these suspended officers are working an average of four double shifts a week,” Boynton wrote in an email to the Monitor. “The New Hampshire DOC staff are the most dedicated people you will ever meet.”