BOISE — For over a month, Idaho Department of Correction employees have been pleading for lawmakers to help fix their staffing shortages before someone got hurt. Last week, someone did.
An inmate on Aug. 9 followed a female staffer and struck her in the face and head before officers responded at a prison south of Boise, according to interviews and a document reviewed by the Idaho Statesman.
James Du Toit, a corrections sergeant, on Facebook described the woman as a paralegal who has needed two surgeries so far to repair facial fractures. Du Toit declined to comment further, but in his post, he called it a “prison staffing emergency” that taxpayers will ultimately have to pay for. The attack occurred at the Idaho State Correctional Center, one of the department’s largest facilities in Kuna that has struggled with understaffing recently.
“The fact that an inexperienced job applicant can make as much, or more, at those other jobs as they can working in our prisons is why we close so many of our tower posts — especially at night — why we STILL don’t have visiting or chapel services, or why our residents are only protected by half the staff our own depleted schedules require,” Du Toit wrote on Tuesday.
Idaho Department of Correction spokesperson Jeff Ray confirmed a staff member was assaulted last week, then treated and released from a Boise hospital. The department declined to comment further, pending an investigation by the Ada County Sheriff’s Office.
But it’s not the only security incident that occurred at the Idaho State Correctional Center last week. A day after the staffer’s assault, 22 inmates got into a fight when a staff member accidentally opened several cell doors in one of the facility’s housing units, Ray said.
“Security staff responded immediately,” Ray said in an emailed statement to the Statesman. “No one was seriously hurt.”
State Rep. John Gannon, a Boise Democrat, sent a news release Wednesday about the attack on the paralegal and called for immediate action to solve the correctional facilities’ understaffing woes. He cited problems with a former private contractor’s operation of the Idaho State Correctional Center in Boise, when understaffing in 2014 in part led to violent incidents and the prison’s nickname, “Gladiator School.”
“It looks like Idaho is again going down the same road and making the same mistakes,” Gannon said. “Our state employees should never be the victims of flawed policies. They are at risk now and action is required now, not next week.”
Correctional officers, department employees send ‘plea for help’
For months before the staffer was assaulted, correctional officers pleaded with lawmakers and Gov. Brad Little to act on their staffing shortages, according to email records obtained with a public records request by the Statesman.
Several told state legislators that working 16-hour shifts, multiple times a week, is dangerous to both staff and inmates. One correctional lieutenant said that at one point, 18 staffers in one shift managed 2,099 inmates — a ratio of 116 inmates per officer.
In August so far, Department of Correction has totaled more than 10,000 hours of overtime. That’s already a 62% increase from the same month last year.
“The situation is incredibly dire, and I am sending this email as a plea for help!” the lieutenant wrote.
One program manager at the Department of Correction told Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, that a correctional officer nearly fell asleep at the wheel while driving home after working two 16-hour shifts. Several called for the National Guard to be deployed. Winder didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
“I’m asking for your help in resolving this problem before it becomes a tragedy and someone gets hurt,” a Department of Correction employee wrote. “Be it an inmate or staff member, because there was not enough officers on duty to stop a fight or an escape attempt.”
Department of Correction struggles with new hires, increased turnover
Six prisons make up the South Boise Prison Complex along Pleasant Valley Road in Kuna, south of the Boise Airport.
On a day in late July, the front desk at one of them, the Idaho Maximum Security Institution, wasn’t manned by a security guard. Instead, it was occupied by a clinician who checked visitors in and out of the prison.
Josh Tewalt, Idaho Department of Correction director, told the Statesman in an interview that the department is in an “all hands on deck” situation.
Staffers have filled in mandatory posts whenever they’re needed, but residents feel those impacts. When case managers, for example, are redirected to staff security posts, they’re no longer running programs needed for the inmates. That could delay their release times, Tewalt said.
“Today we’re not competitive in the marketplace. That’s where we’re feeling the effects,” Tewalt said. “That’s been the uniquely frustrating part about this, to see the economy change right in front of your eyes. And how do you respond in a timely way to address that?”
Department of Correction and state officials said that earlier this year, while hiring new staff became a struggle, turnover remained comparable to previous years. That’s changed in the past couple months, they said.
A starting salary raise, from today’s $16.75 to $18 an hour, would be “too little too late,” one correctional officer told legislators. Ada County correctional officers get paid nearly $20 an hour, and across the border in Oregon, wages for correctional officers start at over $22 an hour.
Alex Adams, head of Little’s Division of Financial Management, said in an interview that state officials have “heard the message loud and clear” about what may be a viable starting salary and are still discussing where the starting pay would land. Departmental budgets are due Sept. 1, when correction officials will request specifics.
Jared Larsen, Little’s criminal justice policy adviser, said the Department of Correction can implement some short-term solutions in the coming weeks with its salary savings. Those solutions will likely come in the form of increased starting salaries, sign-on bonuses for new hires and retention bonuses after the first five years at the department, he said.
Using cost savings can aid the Department of Correction for the remainder of the fiscal year, which began July 1. But Adams said state legislators will need to approve any permanent changes during the next legislative session. The governor’s office is working on those recommendations in his budget for the next fiscal year.
“The first thing to acknowledge is that this needs a permanent solution,” Adams told the Statesman.
This year starting wages for correctional officers increased from $16.50 to $16.75 an hour, and pay increased for existing Department of Correction employees from 4.2% to 6.2%, Adams said.
Tewalt in late July said he wants to ensure whatever the department asks for is “defensible” to taxpayers and lawmakers. But similar law enforcement positions now generally average around $19.50 an hour, he said.
Ray said department officials want to address its security pay structure and “expect to have exciting news to share very soon.”
“Aside from keeping our staff and residents safe, there isn’t a higher priority for our agency right now than meaningfully addressing the staff shortage,” Ray said.
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