Short staffing leaves prisons running on overtime

Two officers sometimes guard 400 inmates due to workforce vacancies

By: - January 29, 2024 3:46 pm
South Dakota Department of Corrections Director of Finance and Administration Brittni Skipper, left, and DOC Secretary Kellie Wasko address the Joint Appropriations Committee on Jan. 29, 2024, in Pierre. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

South Dakota Department of Corrections Director of Finance and Administration Brittni Skipper, left, and DOC Secretary Kellie Wasko address the Joint Appropriations Committee on Jan. 29, 2024, in Pierre. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

PIERRE – For every pay period, the average correctional officer in a South Dakota prison works an average of 14 overtime hours.

That’s an hour more than the last fiscal year and four more than 2022.

Those hours will continue to pile up until the Department of Corrections can cut the workforce vacancy rate at the state’s prisons – a rate that’s scarcely budged since 2022 despite multiple pay raises, referral bonus offers and recruitment efforts.

That was one of the messages delivered by Department of Corrections officials on Monday during a budget hearing at the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee. 

DOC Secretary Kellie Wasko said the overtime problem was amplified by a short-lived staffing decision. 

When Wasko first arrived in 2022, staff were working 12-hour shifts. They demanded a return to 8-hour shifts. Wasko signed off on the idea, but the change only held for six months.

“People were working disgusting hours of overtime,” Wasko told the committee. “People were literally working 70 and 80 hour weeks.”

Overtime keeps growing

Overtime payments dropped by about $441,000 between fiscal years 2022 and 2023, but average overtime hours still climbed by one during the same time frame.

Chart showing overtime trends for security staff in the South Dakota Department of Corrections. (courtesy SD DOC)
Chart showing overtime trends for security staff in the South Dakota Department of Corrections. (courtesy SD DOC)

Vacancies climbed as high as 30% in 2022, according to the DOC’s budget presentation, with a high of 156 missing staff. At the end of 2023, the vacancy rate was 27%. 

Brittni Skipper, the DOC’s director of finance and administration, also told the committee that the figures could be worse. Workforce challenges are common in corrections, she said. Tennessee has a similar rate for correctional officer vacancies, she said, and two Wisconsin prisons had vacancy rates between 41% and 55%.

“We’re not the worst in the nation,” Skipper said. 

The DOC has taken several steps to address the issue. In July of 2022, the starting salary for a correctional officer jumped to $20 an hour. The pay stepped up again twice thereafter, landing at a starting salary of $25.15 an hour last July.

Appropriations Committee Co-Chair Sen. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton, asked why the monthly vacancy rates fluctuated in 2023 in spite of the pay raises. 

“Those two spikes that we had to vacancy rates was when the schedule changed,” Skipper said.

Wasko told Hunhoff that the change to an 8-hour shift wasn’t sustainable because of the overtime hours. Had the change continued, staff likely would have wound up leaving anyway.

“I gave it six months, and I wasn’t going to put the risk of staff burnout on the facilities,” Wasko said. 

Addressing the issue

In addition to the pay raises, there’s a $1,500 referral bonus for current staffers. Those who choose the night shift get an extra $2 an hour, and nursing staff get an extra $5 an hour. Nursing staff can get help paying off student loans, as well. 

Recruitment has also become a more serious focus. The DOC contracted with a firm called RCI Advanced Recruitment Solutions to create targeted social media advertising, as well as billboards and ads in movie theaters this fall. The 45-day campaign focused on the Sioux Falls area, and Skipper said that made a difference at the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

Sen. Jack Kolbeck, R-Sioux Falls, asks a question during a meeting of the Joint Appropriations Committee on Jan. 29, 2024. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
Sen. Jack Kolbeck, R-Sioux Falls, asks a question during a meeting of the Joint Appropriations Committee on Jan. 29, 2024. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

“We were able to hire 20 correctional officers in that time frame, and 16 of them are still with us,” Skipper said.

The agency has since extended the contract to target potential employees in Springfield, the location of Mike Durfee State Prison, and Pierre, the site of the South Dakota Women’s Prison.

The DOC is also now tracking reasons for employee departures. Skipper told the committee that 74% of those who left the DOC last year did so voluntarily, but most were shorter-term employees. Just 13% of those departing had five years or more of experience, she said.

Of those who completed an exit survey, the majority said they left because they’d reached retirement. Another seven people cited working conditions, six mentioned agency leadership and the others mentioned relocation, working conditions or health reasons.

Next steps

When asked by Rep. Chris Karr, R-Sioux Falls, what else the DOC will do with the data, Wasko suggested that a new focus on training supervisors should be helpful. Sen. Jack Kolbeck, R-Sioux Falls, told Wasko that the correctional officers he’s spoken to have complained consistently about a lack of communication from their superiors.

It’s a “hard job,” Wasko said, but she said better communication and open channels have become more of a priority since her arrival in 2022. The DOC has noticed that certain supervisors lose more of their staffers than others, for example, and the agency is working to address what could be an underlying lack of training. 

“It’s really allowed us to focus on where we need to spend more time mentoring supervisors,” Wasko said.

Overtime hours and short-staffing are also a security concern for staff and inmates. There are times when two officers are supervising 400 inmates at a time – one in a control room, or “bubble,” and another on the floor.

Wasko said she’s working more closely with supervisors at the DOC’s various facilities to manage operations during short-staffed periods.

“If I have one person in the bubble and one person on the floor, it means inmates are not coming out of their cells, because that’s not safe,” Wasko said. “But many times we found staff trying to maintain normal operations with that decrease. And what that did was it burned them out, and frankly, it scared some people.”

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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

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