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Low Pay, Long Hours Fuel Increasing State Prison Staffing Problems

by Derek Gilna

The slow decline in state prison populations cannot come soon enough for many Departments of Corrections, which are struggling to cover shifts in the face of rising staff turnover rates. States experiencing shortages of prison guards include Kansas, Tennessee, Arizona, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan, Missouri and West Virginia.

Kansas may have the most severe problem, with the prison system forced to hire 18-year-olds to fill guard positions even in high-risk units. While Kansas has experienced a drop in unemployment and has an average hourly wage of over $20, newly-hired prison guards earn only about $13.61 per hour, making retention difficult. The staff turnover rate in 2015 was 29.7%, and due to state budget woes the problem won’t be solved any time soon.

“If we don’t have enough staff, and if the staff we have is young and unexperienced, and they are disproportionately overworked because they are understaffed – that combination is a recipe for, if not disaster, then for a serious dangerous incident,” noted state Rep. John Rubin.

Tennessee experienced a similar shortage of prison guards after the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) converted from a 40-hour work week to a 28-day cycle in an attempt to lower costs. However, the new work schedule also resulted in a change to how overtime is paid, as well as some guards having to work repeated double-shifts. According to prison officials, the result was “emergency staffing issues.” For example, at the Morgan County Correctional Complex, the number of guards on one shift dropped from 70 to 56.

The American Correctional Association (ACA) conducted a special audit in September 2015 that recommended changing the 28-day work cycle, and TDOC officials said they would reexamine the issue. They also began providing $600 bonuses to newly-hired guards. Further, effective August 17, 2015, current prison employees receive a $100 bonus for each new guard they refer to the TDOC.

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections has resorted to shuffling guards from one prison to another, paying for transportation and hotels to cover shifts at short-staffed facilities. Wisconsin’s starting wage of $15.20 is not considered to be competitive with the state’s improving economy, and the loss of collective bargaining power has reduced the ability of the prison guard union to obtain higher wages.

Meanwhile, in January 2016, eight Arizona prison guards filed suit in Maricopa County Circuit Court, alleging they were assaulted by prisoners due to short-staffing issues. Fewer guards on duty mean fewer guards available to respond to fights and other incidents. As of early 2016, Arizona’s prison system had a 7.4% staff vacancy rate with almost 500 unfilled positions.

Prison guards in New Mexico complain that working mandatory overtime for extended periods of time has become a “public safety issue.” As one guard stated, “How are you supposed to watch over these [prisoners] if you can’t stay awake?” Officers claim to be working 16-hour days and 72-hour weeks, and say that such a workload has adversely affected their home lives and work performance. Pay for New Mexico guards starts at around $13.65 per hour.

“It’s very unsafe,” said David Sanchez, a former New Mexico prison administrator. “The officers ... are fatigued, they are exhausted. They are on edge.”

The recent slight decline in our nation’s prison population and the closure of prisons in some states may have a positive impact by reducing the number of guards necessary to staff state correctional facilities, but many studies have shown that even when prisons close, few guards lose their jobs – rather, they are shuffled to other positions.

Apparently, however, prison staffing remains a problem in other states, largely due to low starting wages, mandatory overtime and a stressful working environment. Yet there is no problem filling already-overcrowded facilities with more prisoners.

And it is often prisoners who suffer due to guard shortages, as there are fewer staff available to coordinate important services, ranging from visitation and library call-outs to sick call. Lockdowns due to insufficient staffing are not uncommon.

“They feed the prisoners, take them to the medical clinic, take them to the recreation yard. So if you don’t have enough officers, every aspect of prison operation breaks down,” observed David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.


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