Prison experiences staff shortages and growing pains

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(Host) Chronic staff shortages, coupled with normal growing pains – The new interim chief of the Springfield prison says those are at the root of recent problems at the two-year-old correctional facility.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports:

(Door slam/control room sound)

(Keese) Behind half a dozen locked doors, interim superintendent Mike O’Malley shows off Springfield’s state-of-the art control room.

Two corrections officers at a bank of video screens monitor the razor-wired yard, pale green corridors and two-tiered metal cell blocks.

(O’Malley) “And that’s the close custody unit you were talking about, where we had some problems.”

(Keese) The problems O’Malley is referring to had to do with prisoners assaulting guards with urine and excrement. A series of these incidents led to quick action by the legislature this spring. They made it a crime, punishable by two years’ extended sentence, to harass prison staff with bodily fluids.

Around the same time, it was announced that prison superintendent Keith Tallon was being transferred to another post. Corrections officials wouldn’t say specifically why Tallon was removed.

O’Malley, a twenty-year corrections veteran who was tapped to fill Tallon’s spot temporarily, cites a general climate of frustration.

(O’Malley) “The realization that there had to be change, that there were problems down here, the staff was stressed out, the budget was stressed out, that they had a large amount of grievances and everybody was on pins and needles.”

(Keese) One of the selling points of the new prison was the number of jobs it would create. But turnover at the new prison has been more than forty percent.

(Emmons) “Plus there was some understaffing here too to cut the costs.”

(Keese) Springfield representative Alice Emmons chairs the house institutions committee. She says the Springfield facility grew relatively quickly to its 350-inmate capacity. But the prison has been short about twenty corrections officers from the start.

(Emmons) “Cause the administration didn’t want to fund the full operating cost. So now you’re seeing the ramifications of that.”

(Keese) O’Malley says mandatory overtime, including nights and holidays, has escalated tensions among overtaxed staff. The overtime pay taxed the corrections budget too. Prison rights workers say inmate complaints are also high.

O’Malley says the situation at Springfield is especially difficult because the prison houses several distinct populations. Those include inmates with mental illnesses and medical needs, ‘problem’ prisoners, and offenders headed for out-of state institutions.

(OMalley) “So it’s a very very complex operation. That’s what I’m finding. And it would be foolish to believe that you weren’t going to have hiccups in the process. And there are times when you just need change and you need to look at things in a different way.

(Keese) O’Malley says he’s been charged with hiring more staff to get the prison’s systems running more efficiently. Alice Emmons, the Springfield representative, says the prison also needs a work program to keep inmates busy.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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