CONCORD, N.H. — In March, the staffing shortage at State Prison for Men in Concord was so bad that the state deployed the National Guard to help run the facility.
At the time, Governor Chris Sununu called it “a situation of last resort.” But now, nearly three months after the National Guard finished its temporary stint in the prison, the staffing shortage has grown even worse than before they arrived.
There’s now a 36 percent vacancy rate among security staff, up from 34 percent in March. The vacancy rate for corrections officers is even higher, and it too has risen since March from 51 percent to 52 percent — a sign that recruitment and retention efforts have not matched the forces convincing employees to leave or not enter the field at all.
The Department of Corrections has now hired per diem employees to fill the gaps, a solution that union leaders called a temporary fix that will not solve the underlying problem. And while per diem employees are paid about $50 per hour, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, entry level corrections officers are paid about $30 per hour.
Per diem employees don’t receive the same training as certified officers, and they cannot fulfill the same work responsibilities, according to Gary Burke, president of the Corrections Supervisors Union.
He said the per diems serve a similar role to the National Guard — working in the control rooms, but not working directly with inmates.
“What we need is certified officers,” he said.
Officers are still required to work multiple shifts to cover shortages, which can lead to individuals working 64 to 72 hours per week, according to Burke. “People are burnt out,” he said.
And overtime is expensive, with some officers receiving twice their base pay. The department had a $13 million deficit in its 2023 overtime budget, the New Hampshire Bulletin reported in April. The department asked to transfer $8.7 million of its own funds to cover overtime expenses. Most of the money would go toward bolstering overtime at the prisons: $3.9 million would go toward overtime at the men’s prison in Concord; $2.2 million for the Northern NH Correctional Facility in Berlin; and around $937,000 to the women’s prison, with the rest going to a variety of facilities including transitional housing facilities.
The men’s prison originally budgeted $14.8 million in regular wages, and $2.6 million in overtime; the updated budget put $12 million toward regular pay and $6.6 million toward overtime, over half the total wages paid at the facility.
Getting more money has helped boost morale, Burke said, but it’s not sustainable in the long run and could contribute to people leaving. The average tenure in the department was about nine and a half years, according to department numbers from May.
“They don’t see relief in sight as far as new staff coming in,” said Burke. Academy classes used to train 30 new students who would enter the workforce, now he said classes might consist of just 10 students.
Some officers leave for higher paying jobs with more attractive retirement benefits elsewhere. Burke said jobs in Massachusetts pay more.
The Probation Parole Officers are still sending officers to the prison to help cover shifts, said Seifu Ragassa, president of the New Hampshire Probation Parole Command Staff Union. Probation parole officers are state employees who check on those who have been convicted of a crime and have been released back into the community. They are certified as corrections officers, and many start their careers in corrections.
But, Ragassa said, per diem employees are not a permanent solution to the staffing shortage.
“I firmly believe that companies and organizations should look for a durable solution rather than a quick fix to address staff shortage and manage the turnover rate in the workplace,” he said in an email.
While there are many ways to address the staffing shortage, he said, “offering per diem positions is hardly one of them.”
The understaffing problem isn’t new, but it’s gotten worse. In 2020, there was a 29 percent vacancy rate for corrections officers.
It has long raised safety concerns among some corrections officers, who now say the problem has reached a critical point.
Claudia Prescott Cass, a former corrections officer at the facility, has been concerned about the shortage since at least 2014, according to a report by The Marshall Project.
“This is becoming a real threat to the security. My security!” she wrote in an incident report, according to a 2014 report by The Marshall Project. At the time, there were 203 staff at the Concord prison, although a 2012 staffing audit determined that 371 officers were needed for the facility to operate normally and 277 were required to maintain critical operations.
In December 2022, she believed staffing shortages had reached a dangerously high level. She emailed the prison Warden Michelle Edmark in late December asking her to take action.
“We have reached staffing lows possibly never seen before,” she wrote in the email obtained by the Globe. Cass, who worked nights, advocated for locking down the facility as a safety measure from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
“There was a time when we could not safely staff third shift, so we fed and medicated the population on first shift,” she wrote. People with diabetes would receive their insulin, since it was a time sensitive medication, she said. First shift starts at 7 a.m. and lasts until 3 p.m., according to Cass.
“Going forward I will not be releasing them when we cannot meet the critical minimum staffing. It is not safe, it violates policy, and it is irresponsible,” she said.
On Dec. 20, five hours after Cass’ email, Edmark replied: “CO Cass,” she wrote. “Someone will be following up with you directly. Respectfully, Michelle.”
On Dec. 21, she escalated her concern to Paul Raymond, assistant commissioner of the Department of Corrections. The subject of her email was “weekend staffing crisis.”
“We have not been able to get anywhere near the critical minimum necessary on third shift on the weekend for a while,” she wrote. “I have no reason to believe this is going to improve. I am completely unwilling to continue playing Russian roulette.”
“Please, I implore you, intervene before this goes south or be complicit,” she said.
On Dec. 22, Cass received notice she would be suspended and investigated. On Aug. 3 she was fired for dereliction of duties and not following orders from a superior, according to a dismissal letter obtained by the Globe.
“I am issuing this dismissal for your continued insistence that you would act unilaterally and outside of policy, without required consultation and communication with your supervisors, and receiving appropriate permissions,” Edmark, the warden, wrote in the dismissal letter.
A spokesperson for the department has not responded to a request for comment on Cass’ firing or the safety concerns she raised. Helen Hanks, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, did not respond to an interview request for this story.
A department spokesperson sent the Globe recruitment and retention materials. Recruitment efforts include posting on social media and attending job fairs. The recruitment team has participated in 84 community events from November 2022 through May 2023, including career fairs, speaking engagements, and other events, according to the departmental brochure from spring 2023. They are also working to establish an internship program with most New Hampshire colleges.
As of May 2023, there were 259 full-time vacancies, out of 970 total budgeted positions. Twelve employees have retired in 2023, and 30 have been fired, while only 36 have been hired, which works out to a net loss of six employees, according to a department handout.
Cass told the Globe she plans to hire a lawyer to fight the firing. And she said the staffing shortage is dangerous for guards and inmates alike.
She pointed to the murder in Berlin — when a man incarcerated at the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility died of blunt impact head and neck injuries after what officials described as a resident-on-resident attack — and the inadvertent death of Jason Rothe, a patient in Concord’s Secure Psychiatric Unit as “glaring failures.”
According to sources with knowledge of the situation, Rothe got into an altercation with six guards after refusing to leave a room if he wasn’t given food. They said the incident happened on a day when the facility was not adequately staffed.
The Attorney General is currently investigating that incident.