HARRISBURG – The state instituted a hiring freeze at Pennsylvania’s prisons to save money, and the corrections officers’ union said Tuesday that such a step adds to the safety risks for a skeleton prison workforce if it drags on for much longer.
Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel issued an internal memo May 27 imposing a department-wide hiring freeze beginning immediately and lasting until at least July 1. In a copy obtained by the Associated Press, Wetzel wrote the hiring freeze is solely to save money and it is the first step in dealing with tight finances resulting from the state’s growing budget shortfall.
“The implementation of this hiring freeze is not taken lightly as we understand the need for staffing critical positions,” Wetzel wrote. “We will re-evaluate the hiring freeze after we review the impacts of the freeze and evaluate the projected expenditures against the actual enacted 2014-15 appropriations.”
Pennlive.com first reported on the memo Tuesday.
The 2014-15 fiscal year begins July 1, but the Republican-controlled Legislature is getting its latest start on budget legislation in at least a decade. Nothing has come up for a vote yet, even in committee, and an initial House Appropriations Committee vote is not expected for at least another two weeks.
The state’s finances are under extreme pressure. Tax collections for the 2013-14 fiscal year ending June 30 are about $600 million behind expectations, putting Corbett’s $29.4 billion budget proposal out of balance by more than $1 billion.
Meanwhile, the state is taking a $340 million hit in the loss of federal Medicaid funds, mandated pension obligations are soaring by $600 million and Corbett appointees in charge of the Philadelphia School District, the state’s largest, are pressuring the state for more aid to avoid additional layoffs and service cuts.
Roy Pinto, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said prison staffing is at the 2008 level, while the state prison population has grown by 5,000 more inmates since then. He said the officers’ biggest concern is their own safety, and a hiring freeze that lasts well past July 1 will increase the danger.
“Everybody’s just worried about being able to survive now,” Pinto said. “They’re worried about their own safety, because there’s nobody else around.”
Pinto counted about 8,400 unionized corrections officers and 900 non-union officers. As of April 30, nearly 50,000 inmates were in state prisons.
“When I started 28 years ago, we never had less than three (corrections officers) on a housing unit,” Pinto said. “They’ve whittled that down to where there’s one on a housing unit. They can’t cut anymore unless they’re going to let the inmates run it.”