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Editorial board: State must raise pay to address dramatic worker shortage in Wyoming prisons

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Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution

The Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution is seen on Feb. 18 in Torrington. The facility is Wyoming's largest prison. 

By any measure, working at a state penitentiary isn’t easy. You spend long shifts in a stressful environment where making a mistake can have real consequences. At stake is the safety of fellow workers, the prisoners and the community, to say nothing about the fact that prisons should also provide opportunities for rehabilitation.

And yet Wyoming’s correctional workers are considerably underpaid. Jobs at the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institute in Torrington — the state’s biggest prison — start at just under $18 an hour. A few miles to the east in Nebraska, a similar worker would start at $22 to $27 an hour and get a $15,000 hiring bonus that’s paid out of over three years.

Some jails in Wyoming pay their workers more than prisons, even though prisons house a population that has been convicted of more serious crimes. (Jails house people who are awaiting trial or who’ve been convicted of crimes that require less than a year behind bars.)

The results of the pay disparity are easy to see. The Wyoming Department of Corrections has about 200 unfilled positions. That includes a shocking 90 at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, the state’s highest security prison, and 52 at the Torrington facility, according to figures provided earlier this month.

That understaffing has profound consequences. Take the prison in Rawlins. Lockdowns are more frequent. There are fewer classes that can help prisoners integrate back into normal life once they get out. Officers are working overtime, and some case workers are pulling security shifts.

It stands to reason that a worker who’s racking up overtime or who is working a job outside their area of expertise is more likely to make a mistake or miss something. They’re also more likely to burn out and leave, exacerbating the understaffing problem.

This problem, for all of its scope, has a relatively easy fix: raise the pay of corrections workers. If Nebraska can afford to pay its employees $4 to $9 more an hour, we can certainly find a way to give Wyoming workers a bump. Working in a prison isn’t an easy job, so if someone has an option to earn more from a municipality or in the private sector, they likely will. Wyoming needs to make these jobs more competitive. Money talks.

The next legislative session is approaching, and we hope Gov. Mark Gordon’s budget will include pay raises for corrections workers. We also hope lawmakers approve those raises. The statehouse has never been excited about spending more on government, but this isn’t about feeding a bloated bureaucracy. This is about making sure that our prisons system is safe. If we are committed to locking up folks, we better be willing to provide the funds to manage that population.

And now is the right time to do it. Wyoming’s last revenue report, released in July, showed an improved outlook for the state. We have more money to spend than we thought. Let’s be judicious about that spending, but also make sure that we are investing in a corrections system that is safe and that provides opportunities for prisoners to turn their lives around. When it comes to our corrections system, pinching pennies costs us more in the long run.

The opinions of the Casper Star-Tribune Editorial Board represent the views of a majority of its members. Not all members will necessarily agree on all parts of a published editorial.


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