Republican senators question prison pay -- and rattle some cages

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It's no secret that private, for-profit prison operators such as Corrections Corporation of America pay their employees far less than what correctional officers earn in the public sector. But Republican state senators have managed to put thousands of state workers on their guard, as it were, by suggesting that the 33 percent disparity isn't about lowly, underpaid CCA turnkeys but rather overpaid Colorado Department of Corrections staffers -- whose hefty salaries could become a major target for fiscally minded lawmakers looking to slash the state budget.

A recent letter to the state's personnel director, signed by state senate minority leader Bill Cadman and the other fourteen Republican senators, complains that the official state salary survey is misleading in its claim that state employees are underpaid "compared to market averages." Cadman and company note that the survey made no comparison between typical DOC salaries and those of private prison employees in the state.

And the difference is significant: The average annual pay of a staffer (not just correctional officers) at a private lockup is $34,500, versus $51,357 for someone working in a state-operated prison. "Other major factors of total compensation, especially discrepancies in comparisons of retirement benefits, overtime (or shift differential) compensation, and employee perks such as using government vehicles to commute to and from the workplace, have also been found to have been largely ignored," the letter continues.

The letter doesn't actually propose cutting state corrections workers' salaries by any specific amount; it merely wants these factors taken into account in the next salary survey, which is used in shaping the state budget. But that didn't stop the state employee organization Colorado WINS from urging members to deluge the senators with letters denouncing a "proposed" salary cut of one-third of their pay, or more than $17,000 a year on average, to bring them in line with the private-sector pay.

Or, as one scathing paragraph of the "open letter" puts it:

"Are you kidding me? This isn't just wrong, it's dangerous and insulting to me and my fellow officers. You think protecting Coloradans from murderers, rapists, and violent criminals should be done by people making just over minimum wage? You think I should put our citizens' safety, my personal safety, and my family's safety, at risk for $12 an hour? You think corrections officers should be paid so little they qualify for public assistance, like many for-profit prison workers?"

The letter goes on to remind the lawmakers of the 2004 riot at CCA's Crowley prison, during which the skeleton crew of private guards deserted their posts, leaving the state to end the disturbance. A lawsuit filed by non-rioting inmates against CCA over the injuries they suffered was recently settled for $600,000.

Whether all of this sniping will lead to some constructive debate in the next legislative session about prison salaries remains up in the air. It's probably a safe bet, though, that the glaring discrepancy bemoaned by the senators won't prompt the private sector to give double-digit raises to their front-line employees.

More from our Prison Life archive: "Crowley inmates settle riot lawsuit for $600,000."

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