The Nevada Department of Corrections struggles with hiring and keeping correctional officers because of pay, elimination of incentives and competition from higher paying jobs elsewhere, a department official said Tuesday.
Sheryl Foster, deputy director for the department, told the Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice that her department currently has 200 vacancies, many because of "recruitment issues."
As part of budget reductions, lawmakers last year extended a freeze on merit and longevity pay for all state workers, reduced premium holiday pay, and eliminated travel expenses for new correctional employees and others who must commute more than 25 miles to their jobs.
Combined with salary cuts and higher employee contributions for health care, the changes have "resulted in something they significantly notice in their paycheck," Foster said.
The 17-member commission is made up of lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, parole and probation representatives, victim and inmate advocates, and civil liberties watchdogs. The panel reviews legislation and policy issues to determine their effect on various elements within the state's justice system and make recommendations to lawmakers.
Tuesday's meeting was the panel's first after the 2011 legislative session and was intended to give members a brief overview of the departments of corrections, parole and probation, and the State Board of Parole Commissioners.
There was little discussion about correctional officer staffing, but commission member Richard Siegel, representing the American Civil Liberties Union, expressed concern about vacancies for medical and mental health specialists at Ely State Prison.
In 2008, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit accusing the state of denying adequate medical care to inmates at the Ely prison. Two years later, a federal judge approved a settlement that includes an independent medical expert to monitor inmate health care at the prison and submit regular reports.
Siegel said understaffing of medical and other health care professionals at the prison "could easily lead to further legal proceedings."
Regarding rural correctional officers, Foster said they often go to work for mining companies for higher pay. Eight recruits from the two most recent training programs have already left, she said.
In Clark County, officers often leave to work for local governments, where pay and benefits are higher, Foster said.
"Sometimes we feel like we're the AAA farm team," she said, adding that the state trains officers and then they leave for better jobs.
Foster said 30 correctional officers at Nevada State Prison, which is being shuttered, will be getting pink slips. The prison, parts of which date to the 1860s, once housed more than 800 prisoners, but the last inmates left earlier this month.
The prison's closure eliminates 107 full time positions and is projected to save the state $15 million over the two-year budget cycle.
She said officers can transfer to other open positions in the region such as Lovelock, 100 miles east of Carson City, but many are reluctant to do so because of the distance from their homes.
Foster said officers who are laid off will have first dibs on positions at other prisons in Carson City as they become available.
"Hopefully all of them should be back to work in eight to nine months," she said, adding retirements and resignations account for four or five new vacancies each month.