Today’s prison problem reporting: Administration defends overtime policy

In Saturday reporting on Tennessee prison problems, The Tennessean quotes Mark Cate, who stepped down Friday as Gov. Bill Haslam’s chief of staff, defending the Department of Correction’s overtime policy and declaring there is “absolutely not’ a plan for total privatization of the state prison system.

The Times-Free Press, meanwhile, reports that Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says a Senate subcommittee will soon be investigating prison staffing shortages. House Speaker Beth Harwell had announced earlier in the week that a House committee will hold a hearing Aug. 10.

From The Tennessean:

Cate argued there is a misconception that problems reported at Tennessee prions are directly related to a change in how correctional officers are scheduled to work, and in turn are paid. Last year the state shifted from a 40-hour work week to a 28-day schedule, in an effort to cut down on overtime costs.

However, correctional officers have told The Tennessean the shift greatly cut staff pay, leading to a significant number of resignations. With fewer people working, officers have few options but to work double shifts. The longer hours and less staff create a more dangerous environment at the prisons, officers have argued.

“There’s no question that the 28-day work schedule was a way for us to manage overtime better than we were in the past,” said Cate, adding he believes the state found evidence of abuse of overtime around the state.

There’s no correlation between the 28-day work schedule change and the employee shortages or reported increase in violence at prisons, Cate said. Instead, Cate argued other employers in the areas of certain prisons are drawing employees away from their jobs, and pointed to state data that shows attacks on correctional officers are on the decline.

From the TFP:

“Recent reports of problems at the Department of Correction are troubling to say the least,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Republican Senate speaker, said in a statement. “Correction officers are committed public servants with tough and dangerous jobs. We must do all we can to ensure they are protected while at work.”

…Ramsey reappointed members to the Senate State and Local Government Committee Correction Subcommittee. Chairman Ken Yager and I have been in close contact on this issue and I expect his corrections subcommittee to meet very soon,” Ramsey said.

…he department has also acknowledged 322 correctional officers have quit since last August, although officials say the department historically has had high turnover rates.

And Gov. Bill Haslam isn’t putting all blame on the policy, either. And, in fact, incidents of violence are down, according to Haslam spokeswoman Laura Herzog.

“While we do have some employee vacancies, they are not across the board at all of our prisons,” Herzog said in an email. “We are drilling down to find the root cause and wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that it is because of the 28-day schedule. The improving economy is a part of the story.”

Other law enforcement agencies use the 28-day schedule, and the state always maintains mandatory staffing leaves, Herzog said.

She added the “data shows that there has been a decrease this year of 28 percent in violent incidents compared to last year.”

Some guards and lawmakers question the statistic.

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said guards at the West Tennessee Penitentiary located in his district tell him the department changed how it classifies assaults on guards.

Schofield disputed the assertion in December in a Times Free Press interview and continues to maintain that isn’t the case.