Corrections vacancies persist, but Wisconsin prison officials say applications are up

Newest class of certified correctional officers is Wisconsin's largest in decades, officials say

Corrections officer graduates sit at their graduation ceremony Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)

Wisconsin’s prisons continue to struggle with short-staffing, but officials say they’ve seen a bump in interest since pay raises for security staff took effect last summer.

More than a quarter of correctional officer and sergeant positions were vacant statewide as of Feb. 10, according to the latest state data. That accounts for more than 970 empty officer positions and more than 200 empty sergeant spots.

That staff vacancy rate is down from 35 percent in mid-2023, and state Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr said pay increases in Wisconsin’s new budget are helping to turn the tide.

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“If you pay people for doing a very difficult job what they deserve, you should have less problems filling those positions,” Carr said.

The raises, which took effect July 1, brought starting pay for correctional officers to $31 an hour. The pay plan signed by the governor in July also included add-ons for officers who work in higher-security and understaffed prisons, which could bring starting pay to as high as $41 an hour.

Carr spoke with WPR Wednesday afternoon following a graduation ceremony at Madison College for newly-certified corrections officers. At 214 people, it was Wisconsin’s largest class of corrections graduates since at least 1981, according to a DOC spokesperson.

Secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections Kevin Carr shakes hands with a graduate Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)

DOC data shows applications are up

In the last half of 2023, the DOC got a total of 3,166 correctional officer applications. That’s more than quadruple the number it received over that same six-month period a year prior, according to data provided by the department.

Not all applicants complete the process or get accepted to Wisconsin’s training academy, but Carr said he’s encouraged by the trend.

“We believe that with our projected rate of hiring over the next four or five months, you’re going to see some very dramatic decreases in our vacancy rates,” Carr told WPR. “The next class is projected to be larger than this one.”

Each class of corrections officers completes six week of training before the graduates can start security work at prisons across the state. In 2023, the state saw 568 graduates from multiple training classes; in 2022, the total was 285 graduates, according to the DOC.

Tammy Padron was among the graduates who donned a blue uniform to cross the stage at Madison College this week. She started working in food services at the Oskhosh prison nearly a decade ago, and says the newly-implemented raises factored into her decision to get certified as a correctional officer.

“Never thought I would put full-time blues on,” said Padron, who currently works at the Fox Lake Correctional Institution. “There’s opportunities, plenty of opportunities to get to different departments.”

A corrections officer graduate shakes hands as he crosses the stage Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)

Short staffing most severe at Waupun prison, where inmates face months-long lockdown

Short-staffing continues to be most severe at the maximum-security Waupun Correctional Institution, where inmates are facing a lockdown stretching into its 11th month.

Prison officials there have been restricting the movement of the men incarcerated there since March of last year, citing security concerns. DOC officials say some restrictions have eased in recent months, but Waupun prisoners continue to face restrictions on in-person visits and leisure time.

Department data shows nearly 56 percent of Waupun’s correctional officer and sergeant positions were vacant as of Feb. 10. That vacancy rate reflects officers who typically work at Waupun, and does not include the 33 officers who’ve been temporarily reassigned to Waupun under an emergency supplemental staffing plan, according to a DOC spokesperson.

Additionally, DOC officials say they’re working to ease overcrowding at Waupun by transferring some inmates there to other Wisconsin prisons. Because of that plan, as of Monday, men at Waupun no longer have to double up on cells, Carr said.

An ongoing federal lawsuit says lockdown conditions at Waupun, including a lack of adequate health care, violate the U.S. Constitution and amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.

Waupun also faces a wrongful death lawsuit from the family of a man who died by suicide during the lockdown. It says prison officials ignored his mental health needs and failed to provide him with adequate medication and check-ins.

Inmates at the maximum-security Green Bay Correctional Institutional have also been under lockdown status, which began in June. Although DOC officials say many restrictions there have since been lifted, men locked up there still face limits on their leisure activities, according to a news release earlier this month.

At Green Bay, about 39 percent of correctional officer and sergeant positions were vacant as of early February.

Nine of the newly certified correctional officers will be assigned to Waupun and six are going to Green Bay.

A sea of graduates sit in the crowd.
Corrections officer graduates sit during their ceremony Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wis. (Angela Major/WPR)