Prison officer calls on National Guard to address prison staff crisis
GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) – Corrections officers working in Wisconsin prisons are once again sounding the alarm, now advising state officials that staffing shortages have become so severe they need the National Guard to help staff prisons.
Action 2 News has obtained a letter from a prison officer written last week, pleading with lawmakers to act now and send in reinforcements as vacancies get worse.
It’s a problem we’ve been reporting on for years. This is the third time in six months that we’ve looked at the staffing crisis in state prisons after repeated requests from officers working grueling shifts inside those prisons. These figures show their frustration.
Vacancy rates at most prisons in our region have increased since our December and February articles:
Green Bay Correctional Facility’s vacancy rate has increased nearly 5% since December. Oshkosh Correctional has seen an increase of more than seven percent over this period.
Columbia Correctional and Waupun Correctional both have vacancy rates of over 50% for security personnel, although Waupun’s rate has fallen less than 1% since our February article.
Statewide, there are 1,322 vacancies, and right now it’s overtime — and a lot of it.
These numbers explain why employees are now reaching out to lawmakers to ask someone else to step in and help them.
“Every day I worked was in my head. Every day,” says retired correctional officer Tom Langenhorst.
He will celebrate his two-year retirement from the DOC in June, but during his 15 years as an officer at Dodge Correctional in Waupun, he became increasingly concerned if there were enough staff to ensure his security.
” It’s very difficult. You must be on your guard. You must be careful. The work can be difficult, but it can also be rewarding,” says Langenhorst.
Despite his retirement, he is still well connected with friends employed in the prisons. State policy generally prohibits them from talking to us, but Langenhorst has his ears full.
“There have been car accidents because they’re so tired they can’t…they fall asleep on the way home,” Langenhorst said. “There are people who retire early. They try to get out.
In several early warning investigations, we’ve seen correctional officers detail exhaustive weeks of back-to-back 16-hour shifts, positions left unattended, and people leaving for better-paying jobs.
“The lack of staff…it’s a safety issue,” says Langenhorst.
Now, a 23-year-old DOC veteran is warning Gov. Tony Evers and lawmakers that backup can’t wait. Through an open records request, Action 2 News obtained the email the employee sent on Saturday asking them to call the National Guard, writing: “We immediately need the National Guard to be activated and begin filling these vacancies until Madison truly sees the horrific outcome they have seen develop since Act 10.”
It was the law that abolished most collective bargaining for most state employees. “That’s when I saw a lot of corrections staff leave,” Langenhorst says.
But it has reached a new level of concern, according to this employee, who included documents to make it clear to state officials. There are nearly two pages of staffing assignments, the vast majority of lines colored gray indicating that they are vacancies that need to be filled at Dodge Correctional just to get through this week. That’s 441 officer and sergeant positions open.
And it is only one prison that currently has a vacancy rate of 36%. This employee writes:We expect these numbers to increase significantly by a few hundred positions in June, July and August, when most people take their vacations.
We asked Langenhorst: “Should the National Guard come in?”
His answer: “Yes, absolutely.”
But can they?
State Rep. Mark Born’s office received this letter. His staff tell us that the Governor has exclusive authority to activate the National Guard but is bound by law when he can, including war, insurrection or public disaster – this does not include the staff shortages. However, the office says the Guard could be called out in response to an incident, such as a riot.
It’s not an unprecedented nationwide move, however. We discovered that the National Guard had recently been called in to help with prison staffing shortages in New Hampshire, Idaho, Texas and Massachusetts. It was suggested in Nevada and Nebraska, according to online media, but never implemented.
“I remember Rep. Schraa saying there was a tsunami. This word is used lightly. I think it’s going to be bigger than a tsunami,” Langenhorst said.
After months of wrangling over pay raises and who is funding them, the governor announced a $3-per-hour pay raise for corrections officers, hoping to attract more workers, but it didn’t. is good only until June 2023.
Langenhorst says staff tell him it’s not working. “I just spoke to a person who is a supervisor at Dodge. The individual said we were supposed to have one, one person, one officer, from March. They never showed up. And they have one coming in July. It doesn’t work at all.”
We asked about that specific number and other new recruits. the DOC says it takes up to 10 weeks to complete the applications and then the training, so it’s too early to say if the extra money helps recruitbut the DOC thinks it helps hold back officers.
We asked the governor if activating the National Guard in prisons was an option. His office referred us to DOC. This agency told us Thursday afternoon, “It’s not something we’re pursuing right now.”
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