- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Officers at the Wyoming Department of Corrections are working more overtime as the state struggles to fill staff vacancies.

State officials say the department had 148 correctional officer vacancies at the end of October. It is authorized for an officer force of 702.

The state hired 100 new officers this year but lost 109. Officials blame the exodus on the lack of affordable housing near prisons and better-paying jobs in the private sector.

Correctional officers worked over 16,000 hours of overtime in October, nearly half of that at the state penitentiary in Rawlins. Officials say staffing remains adequate to maintain safety of facilities.

Steve Lindly is deputy director of the corrections department. He said officers are working nearly all of the overtime voluntarily.

“If you’re looking at the Wyoming State Penitentiary, since that’s been largely voluntary overtime, that hasn’t contributed I think unnecessarily to morale issues in that regard,” Lindly said.

A contractor is set to deliver a report to the state this month on how to address structural problems at the Rawlins penitentiary, Lindly said. He said the Corrections Department has put in a placeholder request for $25 million for the coming legislative session to address repairs at the building, which opened in 2001, if necessary.

“It’s been determined that portions of the building are shifting in relative elevation,” Lindly said. “And the shifting has resulted in some displacement in parts of the building, caused some displacement in parts of the building that has resulted in some wall cracking, some slab heaving and stress on windows and doors.”

Wyoming’s total inmate capacity is just under 2,400 beds and its inmate population is just about the same, Lindly said. He said the department is considering a $13.5-million construction project to add 144 beds to the medium-security prison in Torrington.

The Department of Corrections also is working with lawmakers to evaluate state sentencing laws and policies that contribute to rising inmate numbers, Lindly said. Over the last 30 years, the average length of stay has doubled from about 22 months to about 44 months, he said.

During roughly that same 30-year period, the number of inmates in state prisons has been growing at about 12.7 percent per year, Lindly said, while the entire state population has increased by less than 1 percent per year.

Gov. Mead Matt said in a recent interview that he sees the correctional officer vacancy rate as a concern.

Mead emphasized he believes the corrections department has done a good job, and that recidivism rates in Wyoming are among the lowest in the country.

“But we’re continuing to put more and more pressure on them to continue the great achievements they’ve had by not having longtime employees stay, with the turnover, and not being able to recruit,” he said.

If the state has to make major improvements at the Rawlins prison, Mead said it could mean moving some inmates out of state while construction is underway. He said the state needs to consider that prospect as it considers whether to hire many new employees.

Meanwhile, Mead said security at the prison system is always a chief concern.

“I think the Department of Corrections will tell you that, as of now, the building is not causing immediate security issues. That’s because they’re doing Band-Aid fixes on some of it,” Mead said of the Rawlins prison.

“I think the personnel front, I think they would say they’re OK, but they worry long-term because they’re having staff work extra hours and they worry about burn-out and losing some of those highly committed people that’s providing help for the necessary security at the pen,” Mead said.

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