Severe staffing shortages at the city's prisons are leading to record spending in employee overtime as inmates continue to crowd Philadelphia jails in unprecedented numbers.

Overtime costs are projected to hit $35 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30. That is up from $22 million just two years ago.

It is also nearly half of the total overtime costs in the Police Department, which has a workforce three times as large as the prisons' 2,100 employees.

With too many workers quitting or calling out sick, and too few job applicants, the Philadelphia Prison System has placed a heavy reliance on overtime, which in turn is a financial drain on the city and raises security issues for both inmates and correctional officers.

"Staffing is a primary concern," acknowledged Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla, who is actively trying to address the shortage. "When we have to devote so many resources to that, we can't do other things. And when it creates overtime, it stresses the budget, and the overall fatigue effect on staff is not desirable."

Last month, the inmate count reached 9,334, an all-time high. Yet the number of correctional officers - 1,684 - is lower than it has been in three years, when the average daily inmate population was considerably lower, at 8,100.

There are now 302 prison positions waiting to be filled, and 183 of them are for correctional officers.

"It's not surprising that the overtime has gone up, because the vacancies have gone up," said Managing Director Camille Cates Barnett. "And with a function like prisons, you can't just say, 'We are not going to have any guards this shift.' "

Adding to the woes, the prison department has the second-highest rate of sick-leave usage in the city, creating even more shifts to fill for a workforce already stretched.

"You have to remember we are housing 9,000 people against their will, and they are not always as cooperative as you'd like them to be," said Giorla, who spent four years as a correctional officer in the 1980s at the House of Corrections.

Among other steps, Barnett is assessing whether to streamline the hiring process for correctional officers, and whether their pay is competitive.

Looking to the hot months ahead and jail facilities that are not air-conditioned, Lorenzo North, president of AFSCME Local 159, representing correctional officers, expressed immediate concerns. "This summer," he said, "I am afraid for my officers because I am afraid a riot may occur."

With too few officers, prison administrators frequently impose widespread restrictions on prisoners' movement, a practice that preceded Giorla. Inmates are locked in their cells for significant portions of the day when they otherwise would be using the showers or phones, or exercising in a yard or gym.

At the Detention Center one day this month, there were too few officers to walk inmates to the dining hall. Instead, the food was carted to the dorms so the inmates did not have to leave.

To make up for the lack of staff, prison supervisors routinely force officers to work four-hour overtime shifts.

Together, it's a bad formula, said Catherine Wise, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a nonprofit advocacy group. With tensions already higher during the summer, "there is more potential for a violent situation, especially when you couple that with fewer correctional officers, and the ones already stressed out."

At the heart of the shortage is an inability to keep current officers on the job, and to find new ones.

Currently, about 12 officers quit each month. The department has been unable to hire recruits at the same rate.

Many officers leave for higher-paying jobs. The starting salary for a correctional officer is $32,816 a year, and rises only to $38,991 for a non-ranking position - about the starting salary for a police recruit. Moreover, after graduating from the Police Academy, police recruits get a bump to $41,151 and can see their salaries grow an additional $12,000.

Similarly, deputy sheriffs begin at $41,325 and can earn up to $45,290.

Although correctional officers' salaries increased 4 percent last year, the lower pay adds to hiring challenges. It's an issue in the administration's ongoing labor talks with Local 159, Barnett said.

Last month, Giorla gave Mayor Nutter several proposals to relieve the shortage in a larger prison-strategy plan.

In it, he pushed for rule changes to shorten the time it takes to hire officers. Giorla said the time from testing to hiring is currently 259 days.

Under one reform already in place, applicants will no longer have to take a polygraph test, matching a similar change recently made for potential police recruits.

Likewise, Giorla believes correctional jobs, as well as those for maintenance and social work, which are also understaffed, will benefit from another change that no longer requires city job applicants to live in Philadelphia one year before applying for a position.

Nonetheless, Barnett acknowledged the battle is uphill. "The pool for public-safety workers, and government workers in general, is not as great as it used to be."

Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or mgelbart@phillynews.com.