Director of Corrections James Dzurenda told the Board of Examiners on Tuesday he’s working on several strategies to get department overtime costs under control.
He said one key is the ability to send some bad actors out of state.
Prison overtime has grown from just more than $2 million in 2013 to $12.5 million in fiscal 2017 despite the 100 new correctional officer positions lawmakers and the governor added in 2015.
The budget also includes funding to send 200 inmates out of state. Those inmates, he told the board chaired by Gov. Brian Sandoval, will be the most violent prisoners, gang members and others. The key is, moving them out of Nevada prisons will completely separate them from their fellow gang members.
At present, he said those violent offenders actually brag about the problems they cause and how often they’ve been sent to solitary.
“It will set the tone that we’re not going to accept this behavior,” Dzurenda said. “So I think out of state is going to play a huge role in controlling facilities.”
He said it also reduces the number of inmates that must be housed alone in calls designed to accommodate two inmates. So sending 200 bad actors out of state makes room for 400 medium security inmates, helping with the system’s overcrowding problems.
Medical costs — particularly transports to outside hospitals — are also a significant cost for the department.
“This year, hospital stays have almost doubled,” he said.
Dzurenda said when an inmate goes to a hospital overnight, it takes a minimum of two officers assigned to guard him 24 hours a day — which drives up overtime. For a death row inmate, he said it may take three guards at the hospital.
So the department is now prioritizing medical trips, cutting them back to those actually necessary.
He said recruiting continues to be a serious problem. As of Tuesday, he said there were 172 vacant correctional officer positions in the department. He said part of the problem is of those candidates recruited for the posts, only one out of 10 actually makes it to working in one of Nevada’s institutions. He said some fail the academy, some go to other agencies (primarily Metro in Las Vegas or the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office) and some just quit the academy.
He said the department is now recruiting through the Armed Services hoping to “see some better qualified candidates.”
One reason the department loses an inordinate number of officers to Nevada’s two major local entities is compensation. Dzurenda said it isn’t simply the salary, the big issue is benefits. Nevada pays half of PERS retirement premiums for its officers. The locals pay all of that cost along with more of the cost of health benefits. Together, those two can add to more than $10,000 a year.
The overall result, according to the state’s latest overtime report, is OT and compensatory time off accounted for 10.56 percent of total pay at corrections and that total OT increased more than $4.5 million over the past year.
One issue not under Dzurenda’s control is the overall inmate population, which is running well above what was predicted by consultants and budgeted for by lawmakers. But he said in the past few months, Metro officials in Las Vegas reported a 27 percent reduction in felony convictions he said means fewer new inmates coming to the state’s prisons.
The board took no action on the informational report.