Furlough exemptions granted, correctional officers, other prison staff excluded from mandate

Nov. 11, 2009
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal

STATE SPENDING: Furlough exemptions granted
Correctional officers, other prison staff excluded from mandate


CARSON CITY — To better ensure public safety, the state Board of Examiners voted unanimously Tuesday to exempt Department of Corrections employees from the one-day-a-month furloughs mandated for other state employees.

The board, chaired by Gov. Jim Gibbons, decided to use almost all remaining money in a $4 million furlough exemption fund to free correctional employees from a requirement to take an unpaid day off each month through June 30.

Board members also authorized state Corrections Director Howard Skolnik to charge about $800,000 in rent for the use of canteens and gyms in state prisons over the next year and a half to help pay for the furlough exemption in the 2010-11 fiscal year. The money would come out of canteen profits. Prisoners themselves would not pay these costs.

In addition, Skolnik can use $590,000 in federal funds to pay for the furlough exemptions. The funds are given to the state to cover costs of housing prisoners who are in the country illegally.

He also will try to rent out the now-closed Southern Nevada Correctional Center in Jean to raise $2.5 million.

If he can secure the rental funds, then Correctional Department employees will not be required to take furlough days in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Furloughing correctional employees would not be safe for the prisons or the public, Skolnik said after the meeting.

“The staff recognizes if we take furloughs we increase the likelihood of their injury or death,” he said. “We are understaffed to start with by 15 percent.”

Furloughing employees would mean that at any one time prisons would have 20 percent fewer employees than full staffing, he added.

The Legislature earlier this year approved one-day-a-month furloughs for all state employees as a way to cut pay by 4.6 percent. Gibbons had proposed cutting salaries of all state employees by 6 percent. But legislators reasoned that it would fairer to give employees an unpaid day off a month.

Skolnik said he never was asked to testify before legislators on the effects of furloughs on public and private safety. He said furloughs would force him to close towers and end visitation at some prisons.

The Geo Group, a private prison company formerly known as Wackenhut Correctional Services, has discussed renting the Jean prison next year. The company operates 50 prisons in five countries.

“My guess is they are looking for tenants right now,” he said.

The California prison system needs to find space to house as many as 2,600 inmates and Skolnik said it might be interested in contracting with Geo to use the Jean prison.

He estimated that he would know within 30 days to 45 days whether the prison can be rented starting July 1.

Geo’s management of inmates has resulted in litigation this year.

In April, Geo was ordered by the federal appeals court in Texas to pay $42.5 million in punitive damages to the family of an inmate who was alleged to have been killed while guards looked on.

The company also was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union in June for cruel and unusual treatment of inmates in New Mexico. Guards kept seven inmates nude or semi-nude in a cold shower room in December 2008, according to the allegations.