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Staff Shortage in Nation's Prisons

Across the nation, states are plagued by a shortage of prison guards. A decade of building prisons has created an industry that employs more people than General Electric, and costs taxpayers in excess of $40 billion a year. To fill the shortage Kansas recently lowered the age requirements for prison guards from 21 to 19. Alabama lowered its minimum age to 20, but is still short 412 guards. After losing 57 percent of last year's recruits, Oklahoma is considering lowering the minimum age from 21 to 18. Corrections spokesman John Hamm noted that while the state hired 180 guards last year 240 quit. Arkansas had a turnover rate of 42 percent.

Some experts question the wisdom of lowering age requirements. "You'd be hard pressed to find much support in the community for hiring 19-year-olds," says Kenny Wild, a state representative from Kansas. George Camp, co-president of the Criminal Justice Institute says, "Every state is really being affected in one way or another." He cites low wages and proximity to the workplace as two key factors responsible for the shortage.

Oklahoma is struggling against a 20 percent vacancy, and overtime pay has gone through the roof. But the $16,742 a year starting salary means, "you can make [more] as a convenience store clerk," says Jerry Massie, a corrections department spokesman. Texas started paying overtime two years ago but the system is still under pressure to fill positions that top out at $28,380 per year.

Signing bonuses, savings bonds, and free room and board are just some of the incentives various states are offering new employees. "I don't think you can move anywhere in Texas without seeing our signs," says Glenn Castleberry, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Texas is short 2,800 guards out of the 26,000 needed to staff their facilities, four times the number of vacancies they had two years ago. Castleberry says the shortage creates a variety of security problems.

An investigation into the escape of 6 prisoners from an Alabama prison revealed that three of the four guard towers were unmanned, and 41 officers were filling 58 shift positions. Officials in Arizona blame an assault on a nurse this past November on a shortage of staff. Warden David McKune blames the rape of a guard at the Lansing facility in Kansas on the fact that she was working alone in a three-person post.

Two years ago Kentucky came very close to calling the National Guard to help fill vacancies in the State Reformatory. As recently as last year they were still short 50 of 311 guards. That was when Warden Bill Seabold decided to offer guards a 3-day workweek and free sleeping quarters in the prison tower. Concentrating his ads in the impoverished areas of the state, Seabold struck pay dirt. Entire families came to fill the positions and Kentucky now has a waiting list for guard jobs.

But the situation in Kentucky is not without faults. Two thirds of the staff works 13-hour shifts. At 3 days a week, salaries average little more than $18,000 a year, well below poverty level for a family of four. Guard's quarters vary from motel rooms to dingy shacks. At the State Reformatory the prison tower has one shower, two toilets, and 12 guards per floor. Vinyl shades are used to keep searchlights out of their faces as they sleep.

Neither have private prisons been the answer. In a society that is rapidly incarcerating more and more of its citizens, private prisons had promised to be the answer to the burgeoning prison industry. But the much-heralded panacea proved to be an ineffective placebo as overbuilding, high costs, and security problems have strangled prisonforprofit companies. Of the more than 2 million prison beds in the U.S., private prisons account for only 120,000.

Shares of Correction Corporation of America, the largest private prison operator, sold for $45 a share in 1998. Now a share costs less than a dollar. CCA recently lost contracts in North Carolina because of its inability to find qualified guards. The same problem cost Civigenics, a private prison company out of Massachusetts, a contract in Ohio. While some states are considering pay raises, and others are juggling age requirements, many are at a loss for solutions. The problem may resolve itself as the economy slides deeper into recession and unemployed workers seek poorly paid prison jobsjobs which arguably are better than no job at all.

Sources: The New York Times, U.S. News & World Report.

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