Minnesota prisons are coping with a chronic staff shortage by frequently asking — and often forcing — workers to pull double shifts. While prison officials say it’s necessary to cover vital posts, some officers say it contributes to burnout among the department’s ranks.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections shelled out nearly $12.3 million for more than 262,000 hours of overtime in fiscal year 2019, according to DOC data. That’s a notable rise from the $6.9 million it spent for roughly 150,000 hours the year before.

About 80% of the overtime hours and pay last fiscal year went to the nearly 2,000 corrections officers who guard the state’s 10 prisons. The DOC had 113 officer vacancies as of Sept. 17.

State Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said the agency ramped up its use of overtime after two officers died in the line of duty last year. Corrections officer Joseph Gomm was allegedly bludgeoned to death by an inmate at the Stillwater prison last July. Two months later, officer Joe Parise died of a medical emergency after responding to an attack on a colleague at the Oak Park Heights facility.

Their deaths shed light on the dangers of understaffed facilities following the department’s bloodiest year ever, in which inmates assaulted officers at record rates.

“We encouraged a significant amount of overtime as a result of that,” Schnell said. “Everything that happens (in prison) requires security personnel, and that has been the place where we’ve had the biggest challenges.”

But some corrections officers say the surge in overtime has worn down staff and could even scare away potential hires. When prison administrators can’t find volunteers to fill open posts, they force officers with the least seniority to put in extra hours. That can happen to an officer once every five days, as permitted by the contract with the officers’ union.

“It kind of breaks your mental health down,” said Megan Weinzierl, a corrections officer at the prison in Oak Park Heights. “Granted our paychecks are great, but some people have … lives ­outside of this and they cannot commit to working 16 hours on Thursdays.”

‘Getting burnt out’

Weinzierl said she was forced to work one double shift every week for nearly nine months straight when she first joined the DOC. Three and a half years later, she is still getting forced into overtime shifts.

The 25-year-old has missed plenty of special occasions because of it.

“If you had any plans after work … you’d have to call your loved ones and be like, ‘Hey, sorry I’m not going to be able to make it,’ ” Weinzierl said. “We’re so short-staffed right now that even our senior staff … that want the overtime are getting burnt out.”

The Oak Park Heights facility spent $1.7 million on overtime last fiscal year, up 88% from the year before.

Watch commanders at the prison radio for volunteers “pretty much on a daily basis,” said corrections officer Glenn Lisowy. The night shifts often have several posts that need to be filled.

Lisowy, a 30-year veteran of the department, has seen his fellow officers cry and in some cases quit because they were forced to work too much overtime. It wears on officers who cannot afford to let their guard down.

“I look at new staff now and I see something that I haven’t seen in a lot of years,” Lisowy said. “I’m seeing some fear in their eyes. Not only just fear of what we’ve been going through (with the officer deaths), but fear in how do I call my spouse again and tell them I got to get forced? How do I call my kid up and say I’m not going to make their baseball game?”

A last resort

Prison administrators maintain they only force overtime to fill critical positions. And they exhaust long- and short-term volunteer lists before they get to that point.

“We take it very seriously and do not enter into it lightly at all,” said Victor Wanchena, associate warden at the Stillwater prison. “This is a disruption in their life and it has real impacts on people’s lives.”

The Stillwater prison, which is 45 officers short of being fully staffed, spent $3 million on overtime last fiscal year — more than any other DOC facility. That is up 103% from the year before.

Most of the overtime is taken by volunteers, Stillwater Warden Guy Bosch said, and not every shift is a double.

Bosch estimates that nine out of every 10 overtime shifts at his facility are voluntary. In the summer, when senior staff tend to go on vacation, the use of forced overtime ticks up.

The DOC does not track how much overtime is voluntary and how much is forced. But agency-wide, Schnell estimates that at least half of the overtime hours, if not more, come from forced shifts.

“This is happening a lot,” Schnell said. “We are concerned that our overtime is maintaining a pace with last year.”

Minn. prisons use OT less than others

Even if the DOC is on track to spend another $12 million or more on overtime this fiscal year, Minnesota still spends much less than other states.

That’s because the size of Minnesota’s DOC and prison population are relatively small — the agency has some 4,300 employees who oversee about 9,600 offenders.

Neighboring Wisconsin employs about 10,000 DOC workers who oversee more than 23,000 inmates. The Badger State paid its prison staff $50.6 million in overtime in 2018, accounting for 21 different facilities. Wisconsin is facing a major prison staffing shortage with as many as 20% of jobs unfilled at a given time.

The Arizona DOC, which has about 10,000 employees and a prison population of more than 42,000, spent more than $40 million in overtime from 2017 to 2018. It, too, has struggled with a staffing shortage.

Staffing shortage persists

The Minnesota DOC has made some progress on its staffing shortage, with 55 trainees expected to fill corrections officer posts.

Those trainees could put the DOC within 58 vacancies of being fully staffed if no other officers leave the department.

But officer retention has been “really problematic,” Schnell said, to the point that prisons are not feeling much of a boost from new hires.

A total of 240 corrections officers left the DOC in fiscal year 2019, giving the agency a turnover rate of 12.4%.

Some officers left after Gomm and Parise died. Others quit because of the forced overtime.

Making matters worse: a tight labor market and wages that aren’t competitive with county jails. The starting wage for DOC officers is $17.90 an hour, or about $37,375 per year. Ramsey County, for example, pays its corrections officers a starting wage of $23.85 an hour, or about $49,610 per year.

Weinzierl, who sits on the DOC’s recruitment and retention committee, thinks the department could hold onto more staff with better management of its overtime. Officers deserve some notice before they are forced into a second shift, she said, and partial shifts would be more palatable.

State Rep. Jack Considine, a Democrat from Mankato who chairs the House subcommittee on corrections, has other ideas: hire more officers and raise starting wages.

The Minnesota Legislature included funding for 78 new corrections officers in the state budget it passed in May. The DOC sought funding to hire 120 new officers, citing urgent security needs in its facilities.

“I think the large amount of overtime just reiterates the need that we have to increase the staffing numbers,” Considine said, adding that lawmakers will need to reevaluate the staffing situation when they return to the Capitol next year.