Josh Tewalt 1-14-20

Josh Tewalt, director of the Idaho Department of Correction, addresses the Legislature's joint budget committee on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020.

In the State Prisons division of the Idaho Department of Correction budget, Director Josh Tewalt said he was “excited” to talk about what was accomplished this year, after lawmakers last year approved a $2.2 million appropriation to increase wages for prison staff. “Internally, we set a goal of trying to get our starting wage for correctional officers to $18 an hour,” Tewalt said. “We made a significant amount of progress over the years,” though they’re not there yet.

IDOC doesn’t compete against other law-enforcement agencies for employees, Tewalt said. “We’re not going after the same pool. … We’re competing against other entry-level jobs, we’re competing against Amazon. But I promise you our work is decidedly more difficult.”

State prison employees, he said, experience post-traumatic stress at 10 times the rate of the rest of the community; their rate even exceeds combat veterans.

“This is still an entry-level law enforcement position, but a real need to be competitive,” Tewalt said, “so … what we did is we raised the starting wage for correctional officer from $15 to $16.50, and we also addressed compression throughout the security ranks.” The same approach was taken in probation and parole, “because we really struggled in that area,” Tewalt said. “I’m excited to tell you that it has in fact been effective. When we look at where we are as an agency from a vacancy standpoint, and you compare 2018 to 2019, we have made continuous improvement every single month in our vacancy rates. … We’ve been on a very good trajectory. On average, over last six months, we’ve reduced our vacancies by 41 positions.” That’s allowed less reliance on overtime, he said, which has big impacts on his staff, but is necessary because prison posts must be filled, 24/7.

The State Prisons division, in the governor’s budget recommendation for next year, shows a decrease in state general funds of 1.2%. That reflects budget reductions that Gov. Brad Little has asked all agencies to make; the State Prisons division shows a $2.4 million cut in state general funds to meet the 2% base reduction the governor requested. The budget still, however, includes funding for four more correctional officers and a small boost in instructor pay, as part of a phased-in plan to bring teachers at the prisons onto the state’s teacher career ladder. Tewalt said hand-in-hand with the cut comes new flexibility to transfer funds between personnel, operating and other expenses, which will enable the department to better respond to the cutback, without reversing the progress it’s made in addressing correctional officer vacancies.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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