NEW YORK – Every time a criminal gets locked up in New York it costs taxpayers about $55,000 a year to keep him or her behind bars. But a Fox 5 News investigation found the biggest cost in the New York State Department of Correctional Services isn’t prisoners, it is employees.
At Bedford Hills Correction Center in Westchester some employees will work double time, legally doubling or tripling their salaries.
In 2009, 28 corrections staffers and nurses made more than $100,000 because of overtime. Overtime at this one prison cost the state $1.7 million in 2009.
Nurses were the big overtime winners. The base pay is $55,000 but one nurse took home an astonishing $227,000. Another made $187,000 and another made more than $161,000.
Bronx State Senator Jeffrey Klein is crusading against overtime in state agencies.
“We can’t afford to spend the taxpayer’s money this way,” Klein says. “Certainly no one is getting overtime in the private sector. They are lucky if they have jobs.”
In the Department of Correctional Services alone, taxpayers shelled out $90.1 million for overtime in 2009. Fox 5 News found that 1,469 corrections staffers and nurses had salaries over $100,000 because of overtime.
Overtime is generally awarded on the basis of seniority, and pensions are based on the last three years of service, so when correctional employees make over $100,000 a year because of overtime their pensions get sweeter.
Fox 5 News’ review of records from the comptroller’s office found that it appears many of the top overtime earners qualify for pensions because of their age and length of service.
Rob Salomon a professor at NYU Stern School of Business looked at the Correctional budget for Fox 5 News.
“This is a drain, and right now the state budget is in a place where we can’t afford these extra costs,” Salomon says.
Corrections Commissioner Brian Fischer doesn’t exactly defend the system. He makes $136,000 a year, significantly less than his overtime winners. Although he’s cut the budget by $200 million in the last two years, he says union rules make it tough to crackdown.
If someone makes more than $227,000, or $167,000, it’s going to cost the taxpayers for years.
“That’s the contract. They are allowed to. I don’t agree with it,” Fischer says. “A nurse by contract can choose to work 16 hour days if he or she wants to.”
Hiring more staff would help, but apparently there’s a high turn-over of junior correctional officers. And nurses aren’t lining up for the potentially lucrative jobs.
Fischer says, “There is a nurse shortage nationally. It’s tough in the city hospitals. It’s tough in the community hospitals. We’re at the bottom of that list.”
Overtime bills add up even in prisons that have fewer prisoners. Because of the plummeting crime rate, and the change in drug laws, New York state prisons are 88% of capacity. 7,732 beds are empty. And that’s where the commissioner has tried to cut.
“The way to save real money is to do away with an entire facility,” Fischer says.
But saving real money is tough because powerful unions, state legislators, and upstate communities fight closing prisons. In 2008 they fought to keep Hudson Correctional in Columbia County open.
That prison only has 265 full time inmates but it has 229 employees.
“That’s an incredible ratio, If only our children could get that student teacher ratio in our schools,” Salomon says.
Closing Hudson would have saved taxpayers more than $35 million dollars in operating and construction costs over 5 years. Five staffers at Hudson made more than $120,000 a year because of overtime.
The commissioner is still trying.
“We’ve advocated in basically the past two and half years to close prisons that we feel we could afford to give up,” Fischer says.
This year the commissioner planned to close four upstate prisons saving $45 million. But New York state legislators fought it. So the state will close only one and a half prisons.
Even crusaders like Senator Klein defend it.
“In upstate economies, prisons mean jobs. They’re a boon to the local economy, also there are still prisoners there that need to be in a penitentiary, Klein says.
But advocates for prisoners say the decisions to keep prisons open have more to do with the politics of local jobs than anything else. Elizabeth Gaines is with the Osbourne Association.
“Unfortunately people act like they have a right to work forever in prisons even when they are half empty,” Gaines says.
In those half-empty, and full prisoners- inmates don’t have to worry about health insurance. It’s guaranteed.
“That’s what we are required to do by law, and that’s the moral thing to do,” Fischer says.
But it’s pricey. $300 million in taxpayer money is spent on medicine for prisoners. One doctor at an upstate prison earns $266,000. $118,000 of that is overtime, making her the highest paid person in the department.
And there’s more. Prisons are rapidly becoming a substitute for mental hospitals. 13% of the prisoners are mentally ill.
the largest provider of mental health services in the state,” Gaines says.
that’s more money. It costs $63,000 a year to take care of a prisoner
like David Berkowitz, or Long Island railroad shooter Colin Ferguson.
And a recent lawsuit forced additional spending.
“That cost me
mega bucks; had to built new units. They demanded we create several, not
just one, but several new mental health programs for the offender,”
Now, if you are inmate with a tic, with anxiety, with depression, you get help.
But the biggest costs remain the staffers and Fischer says the contracts have to be renegotiated.
next governor may have an opportunity to negotiate a new contract. In
the meantime, the union that represents the nurses told Fox 5 News,
nurses only work overtime when there is a need. The correctional
officer’s union did not respond to numerous phone calls.