Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Pennsylvania DOC hiring freeze raises safety concerns

The money-saving hiring freeze placed on Pennsylvania state prisons amid budget pressure has raised concerns about safety in the institutions, reported the Citizen Voice.
Roy Pinto, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, told the Associated Press that prison staffing is at the 2008 level, while the state prison population has grown by 5,000 more inmates since then. He said officers’ biggest concern is their own safety and a hiring freeze that lasts well past July 1 — the soonest Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel projected it to end when he imposed the freeze May 27 — will increase the danger.
Susan Bensinger, deputy press secretary for Pennsylvania DOC, said the freeze is across the board, not just for hiring correctional officers.
“We feel that freeze is going to be a short-term, temporary freeze,” she said.
As of April, more than 50,000 inmates were in state prisons. The state prison system has 9,483 security staff employment positions, but prison officials were unable to provide the total number of vacant security staff positions. Of the approximately 16,000 total employees, there are 422 vacant positions.
Bensinger said that number of vacant positions “is not out of line with where we normally are.”
The DOC freezes lasted no longer than six months, according to Bensinger; state freezes have lasted up to a year. She said there’s no safety concerns among administrative members regarding the vacant positions because if there are “critical positions” that need to be immediately filled, staff can apply for an exception.
“Wetzel started out as correctional officer,” Bensinger said. “He would not compromise the safety of staff and public to save a dollar.”
Bensinger said the DOC initiates freezes to make determinations about filling positions and managing the budget. It’s a temporary stop in hiring so the administration can review all open positions to determine what will need to be filled and what can wait without compromising safety and security, adding it also provides some temporary savings.
The state’s finances are under extreme pressure, according to the AP. Tax collections for the 2013-14 fiscal year ending June 30 are about $600 million behind expectations, putting Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s $29.4 billion budget proposal out of balance by more than $1 billion.
“With a need for supplemental appropriations this year and the budget uncertainties looming next year, the implementation of a freeze at this time is prudent fiscal measure,” Bensinger said.
Each month, she said, there are about 100 turnovers in the statewide prison system, and hiring state employees is always a process — no matter the agency — given civil service tests, application reviews, physicals and mental health evaluations.
A class of 42 trainees graduated Friday to become correctional officers. Despite the freeze, Bensinger said, those individuals will be granted one year of conditional employment.
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