Audit: State paid prison guards $1.5M more in overtime, hiring freeze prompted by federal suit

The state paid its prison guards $1.5 million more in overtime than planned because of a hiring freeze prompted by a federal lawsuit over how correctional officers are hired, according to an audit.

The state's auditor general found a deficit in the Department of Corrections budget for fiscal 2014 and attributed it primarily to overtime expenses because of staffing shortages in the correctional officer ranks.

The audit, released this month, notes that the shortages are the result of the department delaying a new training class because of a lawsuit filed last year by the U.S. Department of Justice. The Department of Justice says in its lawsuit that the state's written and video exams have disproportionately screened out African-American and Hispanic applicants to correctional officer jobs since 2000.

Staffing shortages are a recurring problem for the department, but overtime costs had been dropping.

The department says it paid $18.3 million for overtime in 2014, which is down from $19.1 million in 2013, $20.7 million in 2012, $23.7 million in 2011 and $25.2 million in 2010.

The department estimates that the fiscal 2015 overtime costs will be about $1.5 million higher than in 2014.

Director A.T. Wall declined to be interviewed because of the pending litigation, a department spokeswoman said.

Kenneth Rivard, an officer in the correctional officers' union, said the department has more correctional officers now than it used to, and paying overtime is cheaper than paying full salaries and benefits for new officers.

"There's not a lot of forced overtime like there used to be," said Rivard, of the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers. "It's really not a burden at this point."

Of the 860 correctional officer positions, 827 are filled, according to the department. On average, the officers cumulatively work 7,500 hours of overtime per week, and the attrition rate is three people per month, the department said.

A typical training class graduates 45 to 60 people.

The department's hiring process has been on hold since November 2013, when it received word from the Department of Justice that it had violated the law. Shortly before receiving the letter, in October and November, it had administered the exams to a pool of applicants.

The state said then that no action had been taken on any of those applicants, and the last training academy before that time had been in 2011.

The state has asked the U.S. District Court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the Department of Justice failed to file a charge or a timely notice to the Corrections Department, and the statute of limitations must apply to any claims. The motion states that the need to seat a training academy class grows more acute each day because of fiscal and other concerns.

The judge has not ruled.