WARREN, Maine — It might seem strange that an inmate is advocating for the prison guards who keep him locked down to receive higher pay.
But Jeffrey Libby, who is serving a 60-year sentence for murder at Maine State Prison, said it is one of the few solutions to remedy the chronic shortage of corrections officers.
“The staff shortage and overtime issue is a widespread concern among the inmate population. With all this comes significant everyday disruption in the lives of the inmate population and the staff population,” Libby said in a recent interview from the prison. “These issues have created a full-fledged crisis.”
Last year, 55 of the approximately 180 corrections officer at the facility retired or quit. Currently, there are 24 open positions there, and the prison is left even more short staffed when employees are out sick, on vacation or in training.
The worker shortage and turnover is a national problem, according to Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, who said the department is working to up its recruitment and retention efforts.
But when staff is consistently working overtime and inmates are put on lockdown because of the shortage, Libby said state lawmakers need to take action because the prison is not running how the Legislature intended it to.
“If this continues to be ignored by the state legislature then I think what will ensue is a powerfully disastrous result,” Libby said. “The number of staff will continue to spiral downward. The quality of staff will create a liability for the staff and inmates, and it will become possibly a dangerous situation.”
At least one lawmaker is listening.
Rep. Bill Pluecker, I-Warren, is sponsoring a bill to increase the pay for corrections officers. But for it to be considered this session, it has to be deemed an emergency bill by the Legislative Council.
“We just need to make it clear that there is trouble brewing — that this is an emergency that needs to be addressed now instead of later,” Pluecker said.
‘Why I am doing this for $18 an hour?’
Corrections officers start at $18 an hour, lower than other private-sector security jobs. When unemployment is high, the department typically gets more applicants.
But that isn’t the case now.
With low unemployment rates, potential applicants can earn higher pay working a less stressful job.
“You go in there and an inmate mixes feces and urine together and throws it in your face, and you think, ‘Yeah why I am doing this for $18 an hour?’” Maine State Prison Sgt. Rhodes said. “The truth is we just don’t pay enough.”
They also are overworked.
To keep the prison “secure and safe,” officers are mandated to work overtime to keep the prison operating at the minimum staffing level, Liberty said.
Corrections officers at the state prison work three or four 12-hours shifts per week. Liberty said they are only allowed to work three hours of overtime on top of their regular 12 hour-shift.
Rhodes, who has been at the prison for 19 years, said he has seen officers work more than three hours of overtime in a day. Rhodes recently finished a 90-day stretch where he was working overtime nearly every day.
“It’s kind of dangerous because we’re supposed to be public safety [officers], and we’ve got officers working crazy amounts of hours,” he said.
While officers can be mandated to work overtime if staffing is too low, they are usually asked to volunteer first. However, this process has been coined “volundating” by staff, according to Rhodes, since officers feel pressured to volunteer to work overtime so they aren’t mandated on a different day, or in some cases, reprimanded for not working overtime.
“If they didn’t have overtime the prison would shut down,” Rhodes said
Libby said inmates frequently see fatigued officers pulling overtime on the day shift after working all night.
In times of short staffing, prisoners are often locked down, either restricted to their pods or cells. These lockdowns limit the amount of education, religious or physical programming the inmates are provided inorder to help with their rehabilitation.
“Repeated lockdowns have been commonplace here at the state prison. They happen weekly. We’re probably lucky to get two full days a week of fully operational programming. Some days are just complete lockdowns,” Libby said.
‘A dangerous situation’
The disruption in the routines of the inmate population “causes so many problems,” according to Rhodes, who said inmates depend on a daily routine.
When inmates are not able to go to the gym or have access to the activities building, they have no outlet, Rhodes said.
“It causes fights to go up. They get angry at the staff when they call out sick. That puts the staff in a bad mood. It’s a horrible cycle,” Rhodes said. “We’ve gotten creative with [keeping the prison staffed], but I would say it’s a dangerous situation.”
Aside from the liabilities that short staffing can cause inside of the facility, Libby is concerned over what can happen outside of the prison walls when staff is overworked. In July, a 9-year old girl was killed in a crash in Gorham when a Cumberland County Jail corrections officer rear-ended the car she was in. The officer had left work 30 minutes before the accident, after working 88 hours over a period of about 10 days. He told police he fell asleep at the wheel.
“This is becoming a very dangerous situation,” Libby said.
With the prison falling under his representation, Pluecker has met with inmates who are concerned about staffing.
“I was just blown away to have incarcerated men in there saying ‘I need you to do something for the staff,’” Pluecker said.
The inmates were expressing that the short staffing was limiting their access to education and other programming. With the mission of the department of corrections being to reduce the likelihood that an inmate will return to prison after their release, Plueckersaid the Legislature needs to “uphold the promise” of sending inmates to prison and having an experience that “reforms some of their past thinking” and allows them to “return to society as productive people.”
Within the next couple of weeks, the Legislative Council will decide whether or not Pluecker’s bill, An Act to Reform Correctional Officer Compensation in Maine, classifies as an emergency bill. If it does it will go to the floor to be heard. If it doesn’t, Pluecker has the opportunity to appeal. If on appeal it is still rejected, Pluecker said he will introduce the bill during the next session, if he is reelected in November.
Whether it’s Pluecker’s bill or another legislative measure, Libby is urging the Legislature to act.
“I think it’s important to realize that this doesn’t fall on [prison officials]. They need more money from the Legislature […] so the corrections system can operate in a safe, functional and constitutional manner,” he said.