State correctional officers to begin unpaid furloughs

CARSON CITY — State prison correctional officers will be required to take one unpaid furlough day each month starting in February despite warnings that the safety of the public, prisoners and guards could be jeopardized.

Gov. Brian Sandoval and other members of the state Board of Examiners voted 3-0 Tuesday to require correctional officers to take furloughs after being told by new Corrections Director Greg Cox that the furloughs would not be a safety risk and that the step would save $312,700 a month in pay, according to the state budget office.

In contrast to Cox, former Corrections Director Howard Skolnik said repeatedly last year that furloughing correctional officers was a needless safety risk.

Skolnik told legislators that violence would break out in prisons if he had to furlough officers.

"We are sitting on a powder keg the way things are going," he said. "I just can’t tell you when the fuse will be lit."

Gene Columbus, an officer at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center and president of the Nevada Corrections Association, said Tuesday that it would be a "terrible mistake" to furlough corrections officers.

"You will endanger the staff and inmates with this thing," Columbus said. "It is foolish to say this can be done. Skolnik was right. This is a powder keg that can be ignited at any time. You do the math."

There are 1,612 correctional officers guarding 12,562 inmates in eight state prisons and five conservation camps around the state.

Besides having to take 12 furlough days a year, correctional officers, like other state workers, receive 11 holidays, 15 days of vacation and 15 days of sick leave. That means they are off 53 days a year, a little more than one day a week.

If 20 correctional officers are working on a shift, one would be off on furlough day, while three others would be off on vacation, holidays or sick leave. That would leave 16 on the job.

While most state employees have been required to take one furlough day per month, correctional officers largely have been exempt based on Board of Examiners votes.

The Legislature in 2009 set aside $4 million to cover costs of exempting some state workers from the furlough requirement. A little more than $1 million remains in that fund.

Cox told the Board of Examiners that during a four-month period last year when correctional officers were required to take furloughs, there was no increase in violent incidents involving inmates in state prisons.

"I’m confident," Cox said. "The data supports it. Facts are facts."

Because of his assurances, the state Board of Examiners voted against spending $625,400 to pay correctional officers to work and instead required them to take furloughs during February and March.

The board will decide later whether they should take furloughs in the last three months of the fiscal year.

Cox estimated it will cost $30,000 to $40,000 more a month in overtime pay after correctional officers are put on furloughs. Even with overtime, he said, there will be a savings of $260,000 or $270,000 a month in payroll costs.

He said he intends to reduce the amount of time some inmates are out of their cells, listen to staff suggestions and do a better job of scheduling officers.

Kevin Ingram, a spokesman for the department, said that even with furloughs, minimum staffing requirements will be met at all times in state prisons.

"We will pay overtime to maintain safety," he said. "Every facility we operate has a well-planned staffing plan and a planned-out furlough plan. We never will go below minimum staffing plans."

Staffing plans vary from prison to prison, he said.

Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, questioned the wisdom of taking a gamble on safety by furloughing correctional officers.

"To say we can furlough guards and say hopefully everything will be all right is a gamble, and Nevada is a gambling state," Lichtenstein said. "I am concerned about prisons even without furloughs. We had to sue the prison in Ely because of inadequate medical care. There is overcrowding. There is lack of rehabilitative services. Prisons are not the proudest part of Nevada."

The board meeting was the first led by Sandoval. Other members are Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Secretary of State Ross Miller.

Before voting for furloughs, Sandoval repeatedly asked and got Cox’s assurance that the safety of the public, prison workers and prisoners themselves would not be put at risk if correctional officers went on furloughs.

After the meeting, Cox said he intends to ask Sandoval and other members of the Board of Prison Commissioners in coming months to decide once again whether to close the 140-year-old Nevada State Prison in Carson City, which houses 700 medium-security inmates.

Skolnik and then-Gov. Jim Gibbons repeatedly tried to close the prison, saying that the move would save $3 million to $9 million a year and that officers could be transferred to other prison without layoffs.

But Miller and Masto, who also serve as prison commissioners, opposed closing the old prison, as did the Legislature and employee associations.

Columbus said it would be impossible for some prison workers to keep their jobs because they might not be able to uproot their families and move to Las Vegas.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at or 775-687-3901.

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