Staffing Pennsylvania prisons remains problematic

By Anthony Hennen | The Center Square

(The Center Square) — The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections continues to deal with worker shortages as the effects of COVID-19 have changed how prisons in the commonwealth operate.

A Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Thursday heard testimony from the heads of the Department of Corrections and Board of Probation & Parole to understand their budget needs and current challenges.

Roughly 175 inmates and 12 staff members have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. The department spent roughly $1.45 billion from the federal government’s Coronavirus Relief Fund on supplies, vaccinations, and protective personal equipment — but especially personnel costs, which the department estimated at $1.275 billion.

The worker shortage is a problem the department has dealt with much like private employers.

“The vacancies are a concern to us,” said Secretary of Corrections George Little. Vaccine mandates wore on the staff, too, he said.

Compensation levels may increase to attract workers, if the Office of the Budget approves.

“For us, our initial pay — while competitive — is not substantially better than competitors. All you need to do is drive up the I-81 corridor. There’s warehouses offering pay that’s pretty close to starting pay” for correctional officers, Little said.

Prison nurses, too, are in short supply. Deputy Secretary for Administration Christopher Oppman noted that, normally, the department would have about 55 nurse vacancies — now, it’s up to 115. They have increased the starting salary to attract nurses, but haven’t reaped the benefits yet, he said.

One benefit the department has seen elsewhere, however, is in the recidivism rate dropping.

“Let me say, one significant area has been reentry services inside the institution system,” Little said. “We prepare them while the individual is with us.”

The Department of Corrections offers soon-to-be-released inmates assistance in finding employment, substance abuse services, and medical assistance (though inmates are not required to use these services).

But mental health remains an issue.

“Approximately 35% have identifiable issues,” Little said of inmates. “We are the largest provider of services in terms of institutional care in the commonwealth.”

Another pandemic-related change has been the department’s use of mobile parole agents to meet parolees. It has improved contact as well as the agents’ knowledge of their caseloads, Little said.

Additionally, “the use of video visitation has been phenomenal,” he noted, allowing inmates to have connections with family they previously lacked. Little said, “That kind of normal interaction with family members has been a boon.”

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