Crime cost them their freedom. Some Vermont inmates will spend a few months behind bars; others a lifetime. It's a volatile world and protecting it can be extremely dangerous.
"It can be mundane for days or weeks at a time then you have an explosive situation that's life-threatening," said David Bellini, a union representative.
Corrections says a recent study reveals a spike in Vermont prison violence in 2011. Inmate fighting and assaults on staff were up 11 percent. Officials say gang affiliations play a small part, but the majority of the conflict comes down to clashing personalities. Meanwhile, fewer nonviolent offenders are in cells.
"So who's left behind? Your more violent offenders, your more high-risk offenders. And putting them all in the same location you're going to create some issues," said William Lawhorn of the Vt. Corrections Department.
Corrections officials say they want to get ahead of the problem. So the department is adding an average of three correctional officers per shift in each facility.
"When you have an increase in crime going on in the community, you increase the police presence. We're doing the same thing here. We're increasing the security presence," Lawhorn said.
Thirty-three eight-hour positions have been added daily. But corrections is not hiring more people to cover those shifts. Instead, current correctional officers have to work overtime. Field staff, like probation officers and work crew supervisors, can also volunteer for the work to lighten the load. Lawhorn readily admits the plan is not perfect.
"We'll burn them out a lot quicker," he said. "Staff will get tired. They won't be as sharp; just physical exhaustion, mental exhaustion."
The plan is temporary. Corrections says it's part of a two-month experiment to see if these added security posts can actually lower violence.
"I think it's logical," Bellini said.
Bellini represents the union. He says prisons have two choices when upping security: adding physical barriers or human beings. The union supports the plan.
"Safety is the number one concern," Bellini said. "If we can do something to increase safety and security, and this is only for two months, let's see how it goes."
Corrections officials say the Shumlin administration is on board and signed off on the extra OT.
"You really can't put a dollar figure on safety," Lawhorn said.
If the plan works, the union is prepared to ask the Legislature to approve new permanent positions.
Prison supervisors will also be required to have a greater presence in the living units. The program will run through Oct. 1.
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