- Associated Press - Thursday, May 5, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The leader of Wisconsin’s short-staffed prison system said Thursday that he plans to hand out millions of dollars in raises each year in the hopes of boosting recruiting and retention.

Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher issued a news release saying that starting June 26, all correctional officers, sergeants and youth counselors will receive 80 cents more an hour.

Correctional officers and sergeants at maximum security prisons in Waupun, Green Bay and Portage will get an additional 50 cents per hour from May 29 through Jan. 7. Counselors at Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake, the state’s youth prison in Irma, also will get the additional 50 cents per hour during that span. Corrections employees who won’t get a raise will be eligible for merit bonuses.

The news release said the raises are expected to cost about $10 million annually and will be covered by existing funds. The release didn’t say where that money would come from; agency spokesman Tristan Cook said DOC officials plan to generate the money through costs savings. He couldn’t immediately offer any examples of how the agency was saving money, though.

The department has budgeted about $1.1 million for bonuses for the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Wisconsin prisons have long grappled with severe staffing shortages, resulting in employees working longer shifts that have sapped morale. One of every 10 security positions was open as of Oct. 31, according to the agency. The problems were the worst at Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, where roughly 20 percent of jobs were unfilled as of August, according to a Legislative Audit Bureau review.

Almost one in five jobs at Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake were open as of last month, according to DOC figures. Of 87 youth counselor positions, 14 were vacant. Of 59 advanced counselor positions, 14 also were open. That facility is under a sweeping federal investigation into allegations staffers abused inmates.

What’s more, 20 percent of the agency’s correctional officers and sergeants are currently eligible for retirement, with 35 percent eligible within five years and 54 percent eligible within 10, Thursday’s news release said.

Gov. Scott Walker appointed Litscher as DOC secretary in February, replacing Ed Wall, who resigned in the wake of the youth prison investigation. Litscher told state senators during his confirmation hearing in March that the public has lost confidence in the DOC and he wants to reduce forced overtime.

Rick Badger, executive director of the state workers union, issued a statement calling the raises overdue. But he said morale would continue to suffer due to Walker’s signature 2011 law that stripped most public workers of their collective bargaining rights.

“No doubt that these raises are needed to begin to claw back some of the hits these hardworking people have taken because of Walker’s policies,” Badger wrote. “But if you’re really serious about retaining employees, you also have to look at how you treat them every day.”

Asked for comment on Badger’s remarks, Walker spokesman Tom Evenson responded with a statement saying Walker supports Litscher, and the changes he’s spearheading will help bring about positive change.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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