Wednesday, November 5, 2003

200 more prison guards not enough, union says

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - The state said it must hire about 200 prison guards to address a serious staff shortage at prisons statewide, despite a hiring freeze imposed during a contract dispute over closing a prison in Lima.

"We haven't had any serious incidents, fortunately, but we don't want to risk that," Gov. Bob Taft said Tuesday. "We have to maintain the safety within our prisons."

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction will use savings from the ongoing freeze and limits on overtime to pay for the hires, spokeswoman JoEllen Culp said Tuesday.

The union representing prison guards said the action doesn't go far enough. The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association said 14 northern Ohio prisons have a shortage of more than 700 employees.

"These 200 positions are a drop in the bucket considering how significant a problem we have in the north," said union President Ron Alexander.

Culp disputed the union's figures, saying 308 guard positions are open in the northern prisons while 400 guards are on disability leave. Statewide, the system has 587 guard vacancies, Culp said.

The state, with 33 prisons, has about 7,200 prison guards statewide.

The department stopped hiring guards after the union went to court to halt the planned closing of Lima Correctional Institution in northwest Ohio.

Taft, a Republican, and the department said the closure would save about $25 million yearly, and that keeping it open cost $6.6 million through the first quarter of the budget year that started in July.

"We can't afford to fill all the jobs that are available because we have to operate within our budget," Taft said. "The fact that we're having to keep the Lima prison open constrains us from hiring all the guards that we would like to hire."

The department's January announcement of the planned closure automatically imposed a hiring freeze in northern Ohio prisons because of contract and legal obligations protecting the layoff rights of employees in Lima. Meanwhile, normal staff departures have hurt southern Ohio prisons not affected by the freeze.

The department said it can no longer delay filling vacancies while the courts decide whether to allow the Lima closing. It decided to begin hiring after the 3rd Ohio District Court of Appeals in Lima said it wouldn't speed up the hearings.

The most important thing "is to not let legal maneuvering keep us from adequately staffing our facilities," prison system director Reginald Wilkinson said Tuesday.

He said prisons are safe for now.

"Our responsibility is to run safe, decent, humane prisons," Wilkinson said.

Tim Shafer, the union's top prison guard official, said the state has delayed hiring for years.

The prison system "has made a choice not to fill positions and is using Lima as an excuse to blame the union for its neglect," Shafer said.

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