Staff shortages, forced OT raise questions about Portage prison

Staff shortages, forced OT raise questions about Portage prison

Staff shortages and forced overtime are raising questions about the safety of an area prison.

Prison guards in other parts of the state are being offered mileage and hotel rooms to help fill shifts at Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage.

News 3 first reported that a lockdown at Columbia Correctional lasted more than a month after a guard was hurt at the institution in May. While the lockdown has been lifted, correctional officers who work at the prison say conditions are still not good.

News 3 spoke to one who requested anonymity because of concern for his job. It’s only been two months on the job for the officer, who for the purposes of this story we’re calling “John.”

“I’ve had days where I barely felt I could keep up with what was going on,” John said in an interview.

He said it didn’t take long to see how short-staffed the prison was.

“I like to be a sponge and ask the veterans a lot of questions about stuff, and I asked some guys who have been there for 20-25 years if they have ever seen it this short-staffed and they said no this is by far the most short they have ever been,” John said.

The Department of Corrections confirmed to News 3 on June 1 that they were short 53 positions, while they were down 15 at the same time last year. Corrections officers News 3 spoke to say they think the problem has gotten worse since that time.

The issue is so pressing that DOC confirms that non-uniformed staff have been helping out with some tasks, and that officers and sergeants at other institutions have been offered overtime, hotel stays and mileage to help fill holes at CCI where current officers are being forced to work multiple 16-hour shifts.

“I’ve worked 72, 80 hours [in a week] and that’s all forced,” John said. “I don’t sign up for any overtime.”

John said in only two months on the job, that situation has become concerning.

“I think the obvious thing is it’s dangerous,” John said. “For me, that’s a concern of my own. I don’t want to work first shift and something happens to me working in the segregated unit. I might be having a bad day, I space out or something, and who knows what could happen.”

At least three Republican state lawmakers met yesterday with DOC Secretary Ed Eall about the overtime issue and the staffing shortages. Two of them declined News 3’s interview requests about the meeting but released statements.

“It was a very productive discussion and I’m confident that the department has a plan moving forward to address my concerns,” said Sen. Rick Gudex, R-Fond du Lac. “Further details of those plans will be released in the near future by the department. In the meantime, the department will continue aggressive recruitment activities to fill the vacancies at several correctional facilities across the state.”

Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, was also at the meeting.

“I am confident that they will put together a workable plan to introduce later this fall that will address and alleviate some of the concerns regarding overtime and vacancy issues within the department,” Schraa said in a statement.

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman did not respond to News 3 requests for comment Wednesday.