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Facing ballooning overtime costs and concerns about worker and inmate safety, Gov. Bruce Rauner is calling for an additional 473 positions at the Illinois Department of Corrections.

The call for increased staff was considered by some policymakers as a bright spot for Southern Illinois — home to 11 prisons — in the governor’s budget address delivered Wednesday in Springfield, where he largely called for painful cuts as the state attempts to dig out of a $6 billion-plus budget hole, and faces a mountain of unpaid bills.

For the past two fiscal years, overtime at IDOC has surpassed $60 million. Salary and overtime data provided to The Southern Illinoisan last fall in response to a records request showed that more than one-third of that was paid out to prison workers in Southern Illinois.

The information showed some workers earned tens of thousands of dollars in overtime, with some overtime payouts approaching or exceeding individuals’ annual salaries. For example, a shift supervisor at the Vandalia Correctional Center who had a salary of almost $96,000, made an additional $107,000 in overtime last fiscal year. Others made in excess of $50,000 in overtime.

According to IDOC spokesman Tom Shaer, the addition of 473 employees could reduce overtime by $26.6 million. He said total savings would be $10.4 million in fiscal 2016, after deducing the cost of adding new staff.

Rauner has said on multiple occasions that he’s committed to increasing staffing levels to reduce costly overtime, while also calling for systematically reducing the prison population through sentencing reform. His goal is to reduce the inmate headcount by 25 percent over a decade.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, interim executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a nonprofit prison watchdog group, said hiring new staff is “not inconsistent with that goal” to reduce the prison population. She applauded the new Republican governor’s efforts.

Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, who has repeatedly blown the whistle on the mounting IDOC overtime payouts, said Rauner’s plan to hire more prison guards is “moving in the right direction.”

Luechtefeld said it’s not only about money, but also safety.

"This is a stressful job,” he said. “You’ve got to be alert. Let’s say you’re a prison guard working eight hours, then eight hours more, plus an hour in driving time (to and from work). That has to be tough to do as far as staying alert all that time.”

IDOC officials have maintained that safety has not suffered as overtime has grown.

According to agency information as of Jan. 1, provided by Shaer, serious inmate-on-inmate assaults averaged 1.9 per week during fiscal 2014 across the agency’s 25 prisons. Serious assault on staff during that year averaged 2.1 per week.

The provided document reads that serious inmate-on-inmate assault is down 62 percent over the past two fiscal years, and that the “downward trend and low numbers continue” into fiscal 2015, which ends June 30. The report also says that serious inmate-on-staff assaults are down 8 percent over the past two years.

Ty Petersen is a longtime Southern Illinois-based IDOC correctional officer who is now a staff representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents prison workers.

Petersen agreed Rauner’s plan to add staff is a “very good idea.” But he added that it needs to be done in conjunction with expanding infrastructure to address overcrowding. Petersen is among those calling for the reopening of Tamms Correctional Center, a controversial “super-max” prison that operated in rural Alexander County for 15 years before it was shuttered by former Gov. Pat Quinn as a cost-cutting move in January 2013.

Rauner did not speak to facility openings or closures in his budget address or subsequently released documents.

According to the information provided by Shaer, prisons were built for about 33,000 inmates “before buildings were added and celling practices changed in the correctional industry.”

He said the agency is equipped to now handle about 49,000 inmates, because of construction of new cell units and conversion of cell space at Vienna Correctional Center and other facilities, as well as the practice of housing two inmates in one cell, known as double celling. The prison population stands at 48,277.

Though Shaer said double-celling is common at prisons across the United States, the practice was again called into question by union officials late last year after an inmate at Menard Correctional Center in Chester allegedly killed his 34-year-old cellmate. The inmates were bunked together in “segregation.”

Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, said Tamms should be reopened, but also be repurposed as a large segregation unit, similar to the way Pontiac Correctional Center operates, but in Southern Illinois.

Bryant, a longtime IDOC employee, said that would relieve the pressure building in segregation units elsewhere, particularly at Menard and Pinckneyville Correctional Center, which she described as “beyond capacity.”

“I hope we do it prior to something bad happening,” she said.

Additionally, the governor’s budget called for increasing prison mental health programs by $58.5 million.

The governor’s budget is only a proposal. A final budget must be approved by both the Illinois House and Senate and signed by the governor.

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molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI

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