By KYLE CAMPBELL
Capital News Service
LANSING — In an effort to save money in one of Michigan’s most costly departments, correctional facilities throughout the state are considering increasing shifts from eight hours to 12 hours, a concept that’s being met with mixed reactions.
Two prisons are giving the two-shift system a trial run, Muskegon Correctional Facility, which has had 12-hour shifts since it reopened last fall, and Newberry Correctional Facility.
The issue is under discussion at several other prisons.
Correctional officers at Newberry voted to accept the administration’s proposal to test 12-hour shifts Jan. 15, said Kris Kangas, president of the Newberry chapter of the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union representing the guards.
The final details of the agreement still are being worked out, but Kangas predicted the switchover will take place by spring, something not all his coworkers look forward to.
“Our bylaws say a simple majority is needed to accept a motion, and this motion only passed by six votes,” he said. “It’s a very hot topic amongst the staff.”
The state has 31 correctional facilities and about 42,900 inmates, a substantial decline from a decade ago. Since 2005, the state has closed 20 camps and facilities, and since 2007 the number of inmates has dropped by more than 8,500.
Elimination of the third shift, also known as the “midnight shift” is expected to save each participating facility between $600,000 and $800,000 per year, Department of Corrections public information officer Russ Marlan said.
The department’s budget for fiscal 2012-13 is more than $2 billion — down about 0.7 percent from the previous year, according the House Fiscal Agency. There are 14,695 positions funded through September, down 874 from 2011-12, according to the department.
Having one less shift will allow facilities to reduce their staff through attrition, Marlan said, adding that the measure will give each employee an additional 70 or more days off each year.
“It’s substantial savings for us and I think what makes it so appealing is that a majority of employees enjoy it,” he said. “It gives them more time off with their family.”
Mel Greishaber, executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization, said the union is using to the trial periods to examine how much savings could come from the two-shift system and, more specifically, how the savings could help increase staffing.
“Our main concern for any facility is staffing,” Greishaber said. “For a correctional officer, staffing equates to safety, and anytime we’re short-staffed were concerned, we’re worried. So we want to look at things like that, how’s staffing going to be affected.”
Muskegon was the pioneer in the state, implementing 12-hour shifts when it reopened Oct. 8 after being closed for more than a year.
The department’s administration likes the concept, Marlan said, but because of labor contracts, it cannot implement it everywhere. Staff at each facility must express significant interest in the change to the union’s state board, which can then allow a vote among its members, Greishaber said.
Kangas said while the deal likely will allow each officer to have every other weekend off, it also will push hours worked up to 84 hours in a pay period and possibly make overtime pay a thing of the past.
Under normal circumstances, correctional officers have cycling days off, meaning it could take five or six weeks before an officer has a weekend off, Greishaber said. With the 12-hour shift system, officers work two or three days, then have two or three days off, resulting in a free weekend about every other week.
Ultimately, the decision to accept the agreement comes down to a matter of personal preferences among the staff, Kangas said.
“We have a lot of officers that are concerned about their families. A 12-hour shift is going to make it difficult to make basketball games and other events,” he said. “In fairness, it’s a little bit of mixed emotions.”
Newberry employs about 140 correctional officers — paid between $15.84 and $24.27 hourly — most of whom live within about 30 miles of the facility, Kangas said. However some commute as long as an hour each way, he added.
Corrections officers still will be limited to one 30-minute paid break per shift, which Kangas said could contribute to fatigue and exhaustion.
A 2011 study from the Police Foundation compared the effects of eight- 10- and 12-hour shifts on police officers and concluded 10-hour shifts to be optimal in terms of saving costs while maintaining officer alertness.
The study, which examined police officers from Detroit and Arlington, Tex., did not look at correctional officers, but Marlan said the responsibilities of the two fields are comparable.
According to the study, officers working 10-hour shifts reported the most sleep. Although those who worked 12-hour shifts did not report significant impacts on their job performance, safety, health or family life, sleepiness and lack of alertness created more problems.
Correctional officers at Baraga Correctional Facility also debated the two-shift proposal and voted against it Jan. 15.
Marlan said the change to 12-hour shifts would not result in layoffs in the foreseeable future.
By KYLE CAMPBELL