New Mexico officials say a staffing crisis caused by low pay for corrections officers is forcing the state to limit the number of visitation days at state-run prisons.
The Corrections Department recently instituted a week-long ban on visitors to the prisons in order to ease the workload on officers. A spokeswoman said the department likely will impose the ban once a month until the department can hire and keep more guards.
Nearly half of the positions at a state prison in Roswell are vacant because salaries are so slim that employees seek work elsewhere, officials say, often at county jails.
“The Corrections Department is at a breaking point,” Cabinet Secretary Gregg Marcantel said in a letter to the Legislature earlier this year. “Based on current rates for officer compensation, the Corrections Department cannot adequately compete in the current job market, losing almost every officer it recruits within 36 months.”
Short-staffing cuts into prison practices such as contraband searches, offender programming and inmate recreation, Marcantel wrote.
His department asked the Legislature this session for a $302.6 million operating budget, which is nearly 5 percent larger than its current budget. Much of the money would go for increased salaries.
The state House of Representatives on Saturday approved the proposal and others included in House Bill 2. But Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who chairs Senate Finance Committee, said the request may be wishful. Revenue forecasters expect the state to have only $30 million in new money for the fiscal year beginning July 1 — and the budget proposed by the House would add $80 million in spending.
Smith said New Mexico is sentencing more inmates to prison without paying for more officers to watch them.
Next fiscal year, the state’s female inmate population will likely rise to a peak of 904, surpassing its current bed count of 742, according to a New Mexico Sentencing Commission report. Population projections for male inmates next fiscal year leave only 125 beds open.
Ideally, nearly 70 officers would patrol the prison at Springer, but nearly 48 percent of the jobs there are vacant. The men’s prison in Grants ought to have 133 guards, but the workforce is down by 40 percent. The Los Lunas prison, where the inmate population includes some of the state’s most violent criminals, is operating without 26 percent of its intended staff of 344 officers.
The penitentiary south of Santa Fe — where a bloody riot in 1980 in which 33 inmates died and a dozen officers were taken hostage was blamed on crowding and staffing shortages — also is short-staffed. The prison is operating without 22 percent of its scheduled number of 357 officers.
“I have no problem being tougher and harder on crime if you can pay for the incarceration,” Smith said. “We’re not paying anywhere close to what we need to.”
Officials say the department can’t keep officers because it pays them so little. With a starting pay of $13.65 an hour, New Mexico is among the bottom five states when it comes to paying corrections officers.
Many corrections officers take jobs with county jails, which tend to pay more. The Bernalillo County jail starts its new guards at $17.45 an hour. Santa Fe County’s starting pay for jail guards is $15.55.
In his letter, Marcantel, who could not be reached for comment Monday, said the “staffing crisis” hampers morale, saps sleep and increases risk. He said his guards are underpaid and under-appreciated.
“We compete with McDonald’s in Santa Fe!” he said.