In 2015, the governor and the Legislature voted to pump more than $7.6 million into the prison system budget to hire 100 more correctional officers.
Then-Director Greg Cox told lawmakers at the time the added guards were critically needed to man existing posts and reduce the department’s burgeoning overtime costs, which were $2.1 million in 2013.
The decision was a spectacular failure. Since then, prison overtime costs have risen dramatically, hitting $12.5 million in fiscal 2017.
Director of Corrections James Dzurenda and Operations Deputy John Borrowman can expect some questions about that Tuesday when the Board of Examiners reviews the state’s 2017 overtime report.
Borrowman said the situation is largely out of their control, driven by a prison population that has grown far faster than consultant James F. Austin predicted. Those projections are used to build the department’s budget.
In addition, Borrowman said corrections just doesn’t pay enough to keep prison guards who can earn $10,000 or so more by signing on with Washoe County or Metro in Las Vegas after they pass probation with the state.
As a result, the department is having major problems filling existing posts let alone the added slots. In fact, Borrowman said last Wednesday that the department currently has 163 vacant correctional officer posts, 190 when sergeants and lieutenants are added.
“We’ve lost traction due to competition from other agencies,” he said. “We were able to increase our recruitment to fill those in addition to keeping up with normal turnover but, over time, we have seen more turnover and not been able to do that.
One factor corrections has no control over is the total inmate population. Prosecutors and judges decide who goes to prison and for how long.
The governor and lawmakers rely on Austin’s projections to build the department budget but those numbers have been behind the actual numbers for years. Borrowman said the current population is just a hair under 14,000. That is 700 more than projected for this year and about 300 more inmates than the consultants said Nevada would have in 2025.
Borrowman said there are no vacant cells and inmates are being housed in a variety of places including gymnasiums that were never designed for that. That, he said, requires more staff to keep things under control.
Among the biggest increases in overtime at the prison system’s seven major institutions are at Carson City’s Northern Nevada Correctional Center. That institution had just $177,399 in overtime in fiscal 2013. The number grew to more than $1.6 million in the year ended June 30, 2017. The biggest jump was from 2016 to 2017, an increase just shy of $700,000. Borrowman said that is, in good part, because of policy changes that moved a large number of mentally ill inmates out of the maximum security prison in Ely to NNCC. NNCC, he said, has taken on “a new role and that is with the mental illness.” Many of those inmates require more attention from correctional officers than the general population.
The rest of the inmates needing mental health services, he said, were transferred to High Desert State Prison in Southern Nevada, where the OT budget rose $700,000 in the past year to $2.46 million.
Those transfers, however, did nothing to relieve the overtime costs at Ely which increased $500,000 to $2.15 million in the past year — nearly five times the $429,245 it was in 2013.
On top of that, Borrowman said, NNCC is in the first couple of years of a major staff turnover because a disproportionate number of its officers are reaching retirement age and leaving.
“Northern Nevada is hitting a huge retirement cycle that started about two years ago and will continue for the next six,” he said.
Borrowman said the retirement issue is also hitting the Lovelock Correctional Center where many of Nevada’s sexual predators are housed.
That, Borrowman said, accounts for OT costs that tripled from 2016 to 2017 to $906,747.
He quickly added that, while dealing with O.J.’s parole hearing was pricey, that can’t be blamed for the increase.
Medical transports are also driving up costs, since every inmate who stays at a hospital has to have two guards 24/7. The increase in transports, he said, is caused by the fact that the inmate population is older and sicker.
Borrowman said much of that cost is reported in the director’s office budget that has risen from $100,710 in 2013 to $332,318 in 2017.
The Board of Examiners chaired by Gov. Brian Sandoval will review the overtime report Tuesday.