Prisons: Nursing shortage must be addressed

Ohio’s prison system is facing personnel concerns not unlike those in West Virginia. Employees filling the three shifts in the Buckeye State’s 27 prisons racked up $61.7 million in overtime last year alone. Inmate transfers, illnesses, vacations and of course staff shortages have meant that while prison system employees make up less than 25 percent of state workers, they have earned approximately half the overtime pay.

One group of workers within the prison system stands out, however. Registered nurses went from earning $2.9 million in overtime pay in 2012 to $4.6 million in 2017. One nurse — one — worked enough double shifts at Franklin Medical Center during that time that she was able to take home an extra $505,565.

Taxpayers should not be critical of the men and women who are working hard to earn this extra money. They are volunteering to fill a need the state has been unable to fill with new hires who would be earning regular pay, not time-and-a-half. But it is work not everyone is willing to do.

An aging prison population, a crippling substance abuse epidemic, and spiraling morale as those willing to do a difficult job get fewer and further between mean Ohio has 50 vacancies right now for nurses. (And, again, this is just the nursing piece of the puzzle we are discussing. Prisons are having difficulty recruiting and retaining for other positions as well.)

“It is a struggle because jails are a difficult environment,” Cuyahoga County spokewoman Mary Louise Madigan told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Ohio officials have tried to give prison nurses pay and benefits that are competitive with the private sector. But there is still a reluctance on the part of nurses and those still in nursing school. Other states have experimented with forming partnerships between nursing schools that give student interns a chance to work in the correctional environment. It is an idea Ohio should consider, in addition to continuing the effort to keep pay and benefits as enticing as possible. Meanwhile, nursing schools should encourage their students to consider ALL their options in applying for jobs.

Otherwise they will continue to charge taxpayers extra money while relying on a few hardy souls — the woman who earned half a million dollars in overtime over five years had a timesheet for one month that showed her working a double shift 22 times, an 8-hour shift seven times and getting two days off — who will not be able to continue at this pace forever.