Gov. Tony Evers will propose increasing pay for state correctional officers in his budget address next week, according to the state Department of Corrections secretary-designee.
Secretary-designee Kevin Carr appeared before lawmakers Wednesday for his confirmation hearing. During his testimony, Carr said the DOC continues to struggle with staffing shortages at its institutions.
According to Carr, the state has a 16-percent staffing vacancy for correctional officers and sergeants. He said those vacancies "significantly impact the quality of service we provide to those in our care and impact employee morale."
The state is exploring a number of ways to combat the shortage, he said, including a possible pay increase for correctional officers.
According to DOC research, Wisconsin’s roughly $16 per hour salary for correctional officers falls well below the regional average of roughly $22 per hour.
"The pay structure must be more competitive," Carr said, citing his department’s research.
Carr said he expects Evers to address that discrepancy in his state budget address next week.
"I believe the governor is going to address this issue in a very significant way," he said. However, Carr warned against expectations of a large raise.
"We did not get in this situation overnight and we’re not going to get out of it overnight," he said.
Republican state lawmakers indicated earlier this week they would be open to approving that pay increase, alongside a proposed increase for public defenders.
The governor's office did not immediately return a request for comment seeking specifics about his proposal.
Carr also addressed recent news that the closure of the state’s youth prison, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, may be delayed by two years. The facility was slated to be closed by 2021.
Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, expressed concern about that delay, citing continued issues related to inmate care at the facilities.
A January report from a court-appointed auditor found Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are still using pepper spray and solitary confinement to discipline inmates. The facilities have faced scrutiny, investigations and lawsuits for years over treatment there.
Last year, the state paid nearly $19 million to a former inmate who tried to kill herself in her cell in 2015, resulting in permanent brain injuries.
"They are humans and they should be treated in a humane way, and we don’t have a system that’s doing that," Taylor said.
Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, also expressed concern about the potential delay.
Carr said the Evers administration would like to move the roughly 170 inmates housed at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake as soon as there is an "acceptable" alternative.
"We would do it today if we could," Carr said. "I don’t really need to tell anyone in this room how the governor feels about Wisconsin’s kids."