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The Prison and Jail Industry—Who Will Run It

The Prison and Jail Industry--Who Will Run It

by Gary Hunter

With the huge growth in American prisons between 1980 and 1990, the American Correctional. Association (ACA) went looking in the past to solve both foreseeable and current problems. It quickly found that the problems facing the new detention industries were unprecedented.

In 2000, the National Institute of Corrections published a study entitled Recruitment/ Hiring, and Retention: Current Practices in U.S. Jails.

Although the report was limited to 17 jails, it gave a good spring board for a new, nationwide study.

In 2002, the ACA propositioned the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) to create a specific strategy and plan that the detention industry could implement in the recruiting, training and keeping of quality prison staff.

The following year, the ACA received a grant from the BJA. The funds were slated to assess the challenges facing the laboring detention industry. The project was named Building a Strategic Workforce Plan for the Corrections Profession and conducted by Workforce Associates in Indianapolis.

First, in this tri-phase project, was a "Discovery Phase." The objective was to collect statistics, nationwide, regarding the problems associated with the current workforce and recruitment.

Second, the "Create Phase" was to identify positive aspects regarding prison and jail problems and how they were addressed.

Third, the "Implementation Phase" was to develop new practices to enhance recruitment and retention.

Not surprisingly the study concluded that "yes" a problem exists. But even this conclusion created a problem. Solutions could not be generalized since principal problems varied from state to state. Over half the problems discovered could not be solved with money and the middle aged, 22-44 year old, white male guard population is dwindling rapidly and must be replaced soon.

Findings, on the convict side, revealed that the number of people in American prisons grew 300 % from 1982 to 2002. The count in 1982 was 650,000 and has ballooned to over 2 million. The number of parolees also rose from less than 250,000 in 1982, to more than 750,000 in 2002.

Probationers almost quadrupled from 1.4 million to about 4 million.

Juvenile justice figures, although a bit ambiguous, rose 75 %. A national report claimed 109,000 in "residential placement facilities," "kidprison" to the rest of us.

In sum, the criminal justice system in America jumped from supervising a total of 2.2 million prisoners, parolees and probationers in 1982 to a busting at the seams 6.7 million in 20 years not including the incarceration of our children.

On the criminal justice side, findings revealed that from 1982 to 1999 cops on the street grew 41 %; Shakespeare's friends, the lawyers, grew by over twice that, to 84%. Not bad numbers.

The numbers of those who manage after convictions, although impressive, fall short of utopia. Within the same time period, the number of detention employees rose from 300,000 to 750,000. This 140 % increase does not come close to the 300 % increase of those incarcerated or on supervised release.

The rate of prisoners per guard vary greatly from state to state. The variation in 2000 was 10.8-1 in Alabama to 2.6-1 in the District of Columbia, with a national average of 5.5-1.

The problem, the study found, is attrition, the turn-over rate of employees as a result of resignation, retirement or death. It also includes incomplete probationary periods or preliminary periods of employment for those who just can't hack it.

Attrition rates vary greatly across the country. In 2000, the turnover rate for New York was 3.8% compared to a high of 41% in Louisiana. The national average of 12.6% in 1995 has steadily ascended to 16.1% by 2000. Some disparity, in the reported rates, must be assumed due to variegated information gathering practices and inconsistencies from state to state.

One coefficient, however, suggests a correlation between the states' turnover rates and hiring rates. As turnover rates rise, so do hiring rates. Although several states fall outside the norm, the conclusion is that high turnover and high hiring percentages are linked.

Another interesting manifestation associated with high attrition is the reciprocal relation to the national unemployment rate. For every one percent drop in unemployment there was a 1.6% increase in the prison turnover rate. In short, if there is a better job to be had guards are ready with resume in hand.

The exodus of detention personnel has prodded their respective states to generate creative augmentation policies. However, states like New York and Massachusetts, which have low attrition and recruitment due to higher salaries and benefits, are also experiencing a rapid decrease in white, male guards from age 25-44 who tend to retire more quickly and at a higher rate. The study concludes that this phenomenon will eventually result in the New England states joining the ranks of the norm.

A survey of 47 states and the District of Columbia reported that 72 % claimed "some degree of difficulty in recruiting" guards. Only 1 % said it was "easy."

In "retaining" guards, 64 % also reported "Some degree of difficulty;" only 4 % said it was easy.

Problems in recruiting were identified as: 1) inadequate pay and benefits (38 %); 2) burdensome hours and shift work (37 %); 3) a shallow workforce pool (33 %); and 4) rural locations of facilities (29 %).

Ironically, only 6 % claim personal safety hazards. Competition for recruits, poor public image, and applicants not meeting the requirements rank moderately high as reasons for recruiting difficulty.

Pay is also a problem. Across the board, guards and jailers make less money than other criminal justice occupations. In 2003 guards made a median wage of $40,900 working for the Feds; $33,260 slamming doors for the state; and $31,380 booking-in at county lock-ups. Cops and deputies averaged $44,020; first line supervisors for guards averaged $45,500. Chasing robbers and burglars who shoot back pays a little better than holding those same people in lockup.

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001 a myriad of new security positions have been created. For example, airport screeners take home between $23,600 to $56,400 annually with good benefits. Also, many hazardous security guard jobs pay as much as $100,000 annually. Mercenary jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan pay even more.

Clearly higher pay makes for lower turnover. But other problems exist apart from poor pay. A 2003 survey cited four substantial reasons for attrition: 1) demanding hours and shift work; 2) stress and burnout; 3) employees not suited for the job; and 4) violation of conduct rules. Again, personal safety concerns did not even rank.

Men represented 79 % of the nation's guards, down 3% since 1992. Also, since 1992, the number of white male guards has fallen from 72% to 65% in 2001.

Nationwide, gender percentages slid disproportionately. In Mississippi 60% of the guards are women compared to only 8% in New Mexico.

Ethnicity is proportionate and an accurate reflection of the ethnic variance of the region. For example, 98% of Montana's workforce is non-Hispanic whites; the District of Columbia is 85% black. Black guards account for over half of the southern workforce in South Carolina, Alabama and Arkansas. Hispanics in New Mexico make up 56% of the door slammers there. In Hawaii, Pacific Islanders and Asians tip the scale their way with 65%.

A review of the ACA's compilation of gender and ethnic composition of composition of detention data and salary levels in adult facilities shows that in 2000 females and minorities experienced discriminatory discrepancies with respect to pay. For example, Maine, which employs 88% white guards and 8% black, starts employees off at $35,699 annually.

Mississippi prisons hire 83% black guards (and 60% female) and only 17% white offers a starting pay of $17,073, barely above the U.S. poverty level.

Contrary to Hollywood stereotypes, not all guards are dummies. The educational level of federal guards, in 1999, show that 47 % had at least a high school diploma. This correlation continues up the scale with Technical school (3 %), some college (33 %), college degrees (15 %) and graduate school (2 %).

So what is looming in the imminent envisagement of the prison and jail industry? This study predicted that by 2010 the prisoner population will fall back to 1.85 million. Much of the reason for this prediction is speculative and given the exponential growth of the prison and jail population, most likely wrong.

More lenient sentencing and parole guidelines is predicted. The use of rehabs for drug offenders and quicker parole for non-violent, non-sex felons is also forecast. Conservative executive and legislative arms of government are also tightening their fists around fiscal dollars and enacting moratoriums on prison building. However, none of that has come to pass.

Other experts predict, based on historical data, a rise in prison population to between 2.1 and 2.4 million. Certainly, an unpredicted poster criminal (McVeigh or McDuff) or event (Twin Towers or Texas-7) could again engender enough public outcry to eclipse either prediction.

Given the rise of sentences and sanctions against sex and violent defendants and no change in US drug laws, it is highly unlikely that detention populations will decline any time soon.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that 19,999 guards will be needed yearly between 2002-2012 to meet the growth and replacement needs of the prison industry. The ACA puts this figure at 30,000 citing the BLS' failure to factor probationer attrition rates.

Filling the void for qualified staff will remain a problem since guards will necessarily come from the same pool of workers that provide policemen, deputies, and a variety of homeland security positions.

Neither of these reports factors in the "soldier effect." National defense consumes much of the manpower that could otherwise fill the detention void. Additionally, many guards are also members of the National Guard and Reserve units. This quickly takes a toll during times of war.

Conclusions drawn from this data predict both financial and personnel problems. Recruitment, training and overtime pay are certainly going to be factors. Staff shortages, burnout and inexperience all bring their own consequences to the table.

Of little concern for either study was the diminished security and safety, inside of the prisons, that would result from these other problems. As with most expert prison opinions the prison problems seldom focus on prisoner?s problems. The study is available on the website of the National Institute of Corrections.

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