The state Department of Corrections racked up a whopping $320 million in overtime and additional compensation pay over five years, a BGA Rescuing Illinois report reveals.
The worker who out-earned almost every rank-and-file employee in the Illinois prison system in 2014 was not a corrections officer, administrator or counselor. It was a nurse who more than doubled her annual income working overtime at the Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet.
The Stateville nurse, Loreatha Coleman, earned more than $184,000, including almost $100,000 in overtime pay, in the state’s fiscal year that ended last June.
She’s hardly alone.
While Gov. Bruce Rauner this month promised to hire more prison guards, citing “an unsafe environment” in one of the country’s largest prison systems, across-the-board understaffing cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years.
The Illinois Department of Corrections forked over $320 million in employee overtime and compensatory payments over a five-year period, a BGA Rescuing Illinois investigation found.
The annual payouts are among the largest of any state agency. The cumulative figure is almost twice as much paid during the same period to employees of the Illinois Department of Transportation, an agency that drew criticism in a state audit for excessive overtime in recent years.
Officials with the state’s largest public employee union, sympathetic politicians and prison reform advocates see excessive overtime as symptomatic of dangerous under-staffing while corrections officials argued for years that it’s an unwelcome, but manageable, strain on the system. In his State of the State address earlier this month, Rauner acknowledged a problem.
“The conditions in our prisons are unacceptable,” Rauner said. “Inmates and corrections officers alike find themselves in an unsafe environment. It’s wrong.”
Rauner, who has yet to name a new director of corrections, didn’t specify how many guards he plans to hire. He also touted reforming the parole system to help reduce the prisoner population, now at about 48,000, by a quarter over the next decade.
Overtime is a result of deep staff cuts at the prisons — reductions that aren’t saving money because hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on overtime pay, critics contend.
Double Shifts Add Up
Department of Corrections overtime paid annually over the past five years*
2014 $71.6 million
2013 $72.7 million
2012 $57.1 million
2011 $54.4 million
2010 $63.8 million
*Fiscal years ending June 30.
Source: Illinois Department of Corrections
In addition to the fiscal costs, the added hours of work raise concerns about the stress placed on employees charged with keeping order, they add.
A longtime detractor of the prisons’ excessive overtime pay, Illinois Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, (R-Okawville), said he’s frustrated over the lack of progress toward addressing the situation despite acknowledgment from department officials in recent years that there is an issue.
“We’ve hashed this over and over and over,” Luechtefeld said, referencing his conversations with corrections officials. “I never seem to make a lot of headway on the overtime. They don’t deny it — they seem to agree there is a problem.”
Luechtefeld represents a large number of prison employees in southern Illinois. His 58th senate district includes the state’s maximum security Menard Correctional Center and the medium security Pinckneyville Correctional Center.
In all, Luechtefeld said there are 10 state correctional facilities that are either in his district or border it, a heavy concentration that gives him insight into the pressures placed on the state’s prison employees.
“Sixteen hours a day is not easy on a person or a family,” he said. “Then there’s the safety around working 16 straight hours in a job with a lot of intensity and lot of pressure.”
Another critic called the overtime figures compiled by the BGA “dramatic” and “disturbing.”
“This is just another example of Illinois wasting money,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, interim executive director of prison watchdog John Howard Association of Illinois. “Overtime makes an expensive system even more expensive.”
The BGA reviewed payroll data for thousands of prison workers after accessing the information through an Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
Other findings from the BGA’s Rescuing Illinois investigation:
- The $71.6 million corrections paid in 2014 is almost 6 percent of the department’s $1.3 billion budget. The last two fiscal years accounted for particularly high dollar amounts paid out for overtime and comp pay. (Corrections paid $72.7 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013.)
- In fiscal 2014, more than 800 employees collected at least $20,000 in overtime or comp time pay, including 100 who collected $40,000 or more in extra compensation, data show. (Click here to see the complete Department of Corrections overtime pay in fiscal ’14.)
- With about 11,000 employees, the number of correctional employees is down by almost a quarter since 2001. Meanwhile, the prison population is growing, especially in recent years. The number of inmates rose more than 7 percent to almost 49,000 in a five-year period ending in fiscal 2013, according to state data. (The prisoner number now stands at a little more than 48,100, according to the department.)
- Stateville recorded the highest overtime expense in fiscal 2014, paying out $11.7 million. Union representatives say that prison is severely overcrowded, a charge that state corrections officials have disputed. In addition to being a maximum-security prison, Stateville also houses a large intake and processing center, which requires guards to drive inmates for court appearances. The medium security Dixon Correctional Center reported the second-highest amount of overtime in fiscal ’14, with a $5 million payout.
Nurse Coleman, who declined to comment, is joined by a number of other employees working long hours at Stateville. Guards on the overnight shift at the prison sometimes show up to work only to find out that they’ll be working 16-hour days, their union representative says.
“It’s frustrating to those guys,” said Ralph Portwood, a correctional officer and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) representative at Stateville. “God willing, we’re lucky no one gets in an accident driving home. We have some tired people.”
Corrections officials argue that new procedures are attempting to cut down on overtime at Stateville and other prisons but payouts are a justifiable expense in many cases.
For instance, it’s difficult to predict sick days or other events that leave facilities short staffed, they say. The department was also hit by a large number of recent retirements, a spokesman said. Unlike many other government bodies, prisons can’t leave certain positions unmanned, particularly when they relate to security.
The prison overtime data reviewed by the BGA includes compensatory pay in addition to overtime.
Staffers are given a choice of taking extra vacation or comp time for working extra hours but they can cash in those hours each year. Citing accounting rules, a department spokesman said corrections officials do not typically include comp time payments when they calculate total overtime.
Highest Overtime Earners
|Loreatha A. Coleman||nurse||Stateville||$97,458||$184,218|
|Lott Pickett||security supervisor||Field services||$91,429||$168,997|
|Bradley D. Buhl||shift supervisor||Logan||$84,805||$168,733|
|Nwadiutor O. Ifezue||nurse||Stateville||$84,166||$174,394|
|Charles A. Olden||security supervisor||Field services||$83,272||$160,840|
*Fiscal year that ended June 30, 2014
Source: Illinois Department of Corrections
The BGA included the comp time payouts because doing so provides additional insight into the many hours that are being logged by prison workers. When compensatory pay is stripped out, the total overtime numbers over the past five years are around $270 million, according to figures provided by the department.
AFSCME lobbied in recent years for hiring more corrections employees, arguing insufficient staffing and overtime pay at the prisons costs taxpayers more money.
“It is a losing situation in terms of cost and it is a losing situation in terms of service delivery,” said Anders Lindall, public affairs director for AFSCME Council 31 in Chicago. His union covers a large number of corrections workers.
Concern about overcrowded prisons is hardly a new issue in Illinois. In fact, an early-release program designed to reduce the number of inmates came to an abrupt halt a few years ago when former Gov. Pat Quinn shut down the so-called meritorious good time program — an attempt to reduce the time non-violent offenders served — after criticisms. A revised version of the program was re-introduced in 2013.
There are a number of other reasons for large overtime payments, a department spokesman told the BGA. In 2014, more than 900 workers (including 540 security staff) retired or quit, an abnormally high number, the spokesman said. Other factors, from bad weather to a flu outbreak to a high number of prisoner trips to court or the hospital, contributed to a lot of overtime hours in the last fiscal year, the spokesman added.
The department “absolutely considers this to be a total cost that must be reduced,” he said.
Acting Director S.A. Godinez, who previously announced he would retire at the end of 2014, runs corrections while Rauner searches for a full-time chief.
In a report released in early January, Rauner’s transition team addressed the need for prison reform, noting that crowded prisons are creating an inefficient system and costing the state millions of dollars in wasteful spending.
According to the report, half of inmates released from Illinois prisons, return within three years many times because of “technical” parole violations.
Parole violators alone cost the state tens of millions of dollars, the report concluded. “These figures represent a huge but complex opportunity to reallocate resources by implementing smarter approaches to incarceration,” the report stated.
As for the staffing, the Illinois corrections spokesman said it takes time to screen prospective employees and get them trained. The department also has been constrained in hiring workers in some positions due to the state’s fiscal condition.
“Hiring is taking place at all times in this department,” the spokesman said. However, “our ability to fill non-security jobs is affected by budget concerns.”
Prisons are always going to struggle with overtime costs because it’s mandatory to fill security posts at all times, said Frank Shaw, a former Illinois corrections department executive who left the state in 2009.
“It becomes a safety factor,” said Shaw, who now works as a warden in Mississippi for a private prison contractor. “It’s the nature of the business.”