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Amid reforms and staffing dips, overtime for prison officers soars

Corrections officers moved an inmate in leg and handcuffs at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, the maximum-security prison in Shirley. Overtime for correctional officers in Massachusetts prisons has nearly tripled since 2015, even as the number of inmates has fallen 15 percent, a Globe review of payroll records has found.
Corrections officers moved an inmate in leg and handcuffs at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, the maximum-security prison in Shirley. Overtime for correctional officers in Massachusetts prisons has nearly tripled since 2015, even as the number of inmates has fallen 15 percent, a Globe review of payroll records has found.Jessey Dearing for The Boston Globe

Massachusetts has the lowest incarceration rate in the country, and its state prison population has dropped by 19 percent since 2015.

But hopes for increased cost savings have not been realized. Payroll for correctional officers has increased slightly over that span, as overtime costs have nearly tripled, a Globe review has found.

Last year, correctional officers received $44.68 million in overtime, up from $16.3 million in 2015. This year, overtime pay is on pace to rise again, having reached $40 million by early November.

Critics say the sharp increase diverts money from programs for inmates, such as education, counseling, and job training. Prison officials attributed the surge in overtime to staff reductions, the terms of a new union contract approved in 2018, and criminal justice reforms, enacted last year by the Legislature, that have increased demands on officers.

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“To boost staff and reduce overtime, the DOC has recently put four recruit classes through its academy, resulting in more than 400 new and incoming officers on the job,” said Department of Correction spokeswoman Cara Savelli in a statement.

The retirement of veteran correctional officers and an influx of new officers who are paid less reduced base pay about 7 percent between 2015 and 2018. But counting overtime, wages increased about 2.5 percent, canceling out the savings, according to the Globe review.

Last year, 25 officers more than doubled their base pay through overtime, state payroll records show, with 10 making more than $100,000 in overtime alone.

Critics say that reducing overtime for guards would free up money for programs for inmates; specialized units for young adults; and medication-assisted treatment for people with addictions.

“They’re saying there’s no money in the budget, but that’s hard to compute” with so much spent on overtime, said Ben Forman, research director for MassInc, a public policy institute, and the author of a 2017 report on correctional spending in Massachusetts.

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Forman is a member of a new commission created to study funding and staffing levels at the Department of Correction. The commission, which includes lawmakers, law enforcement leaders, and attorneys, met for the first time on Nov. 15.

State Senator Will Brownsberger, a member of the commission, cautioned against drawing strong conclusions from the increase in overtime.

“There’s a lot we need to know in order to understand that data,” said Brownsberger, a Democrat of Belmont.

A 2018 analysis by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice found that Massachusetts has 126 people in state prison for every 100,000 residents, far fewer than the state with the second-lowest rate: Maine, which has 180 prisoners per 100,000 residents.

The number of inmates has fallen from 10,813 in 2015 to 8,784 in January 2019. Yet Department of Correction spending has surged, from $586 million in fiscal year 2015 to a projected $674 million in the past fiscal year.

Roughly one-third of that increase comes from overtime. That reflects the expanded responsibilities correctional officers have taken on, said Guy Glodis, legislative agent for the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union.

“The role of correction officers has certainly changed over the last 15 to 20 years. At one time there was more of a warehouse mentality,” said Glodis, a former Worcester County sheriff. “Now officers are involved with medication, they’re involved with social work, they’re involved with mental health.”

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The state’s criminal justice reform bill gave correction officers new mandates, Glodis said, such as requiring that people in solitary confinement be allowed more time out of their cells every day, which requires more oversight by guards.

As the population of inmates has declined, so has the number of correctional officers — though at a slower pace. In 2014, 4,462 officers were on the department’s payroll, and overtime costs came to $18.79 million.

Then four years passed without an academy for new correctional officers, meaning those who retired or left for other jobs were not replaced. In 2017, 3,824 officers collected $31.6 million in overtime.

In 2018, the department resumed its academy, but overtime rose again to $44.68 million for a workforce of 3,913, payroll records show.

“Those are not necessarily permanent increases,” Glodis said. “With increased academy [enrollment] and increased staffing, those numbers should go down.”

Correctional officers are paid time and a half — 50 percent above their usual rate — when they work more than 40 hours a week.

The department allows officers to work up to 16 hours a day. Those long shifts can take their toll, Glodis said. Officers report high levels of post-traumatic stress, and since 2010, at least 16 have died by suicide, according to a state report released in June.

“Not to take away from any other public safety department. . . . But this is the only department where you’re in a negative, harmful, and potentially dangerous environment 24-7,” Glodis said. “It wears on you, not only physically, but mentally.”

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Gregory W. Sullivan, research director at the Pioneer Institute, linked the rise in overtime pay to staff reductions and the evolving challenge of “reshaping the model of correctional services” under criminal justice reform.

“I think there’s a great tendency on the part of people in those [law enforcement and corrections] fields to try to maximize overtime,” he said. “In some cases it’s abusive, but overtime in and of itself is not problematical, because a balancing of full time and overtime, whether at a retail store or a business, is prudent. You don’t want to have an excess of full-time staff. There’s a balance.”


Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe. com or at 617-929-2043.