He said that he only had six to seven officers to oversee roughly 1,200 people on a "good" day. He stated that he was recently assigned to care for 400 prisoners. There were not enough nurses to provide medical treatment.
"All the officers... absolutely hate working there," stated the officer. He didn't want to give his name out of fear of reprisal.
Lance Lowry, a Texas corrections officer who had worked 20 years, quit to become a long haul trucker. He couldn't bear the work any longer. He was tired of watching his friends and colleagues die from COVID-19.
Lowry, 48, said that he would have loved to stay until he was 50. "But the pandemic changed this."
Prison agencies have faced staff shortages for years, due to the nature of prison work and the low wages. Many correctional systems are now in crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on labor markets. While officers are leaving the field in large numbers, officials have to find new staff while they struggle to hire. Some prisons that saw their prisioner population drop during the pandemic are seeing their numbers increase again, further aggravating the problem.
Prison employees are leaving in large numbers because of one reason. As more opportunities become available, some are moving on to better opportunities. Betsey Stevenson, University of Michigan economist, pointed out the higher risk of COVID-19 in prisoners.
In an email, she stated that "when jobs become more risky, it becomes harder for workers to attract them." "By failing the to protect prisoners against COVID, criminal justice system created an unfair risk for severe illness and death for those incarcerated. The increased COVID risk to workers has undoubtedly contributed towards staffing shortages."
The federal level, as well as the state and local unions representing prison officers in Massachusetts and California, claim that vaccine mandates will cause unvaccinated workers to leave and increase understaffing. However it is not clear how much impact these rules will have.
Brian Dawe, the national director of One Voice United (a non-profit supporting corrections officers), stated that there are many reasons to leave, and very few reasons to stay. "Understaffing, poor pay, poor benefits, horrendous working conditions. Many officers and their families have had enough of the "understaffing", poor pay, poor benefits, and terrible working conditions in many jurisdictions.
Restaurants and construction firms are having trouble hiring and keeping employees. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 3% of American workers quit in August.
The stakes are even higher in prisons where fewer guards can lead to more dangerous conditions for those incarcerated. Many officers say that worsening shortages have made a difficult job even more difficult.
Some prisons in Georgia report vacancies rates as high as 70%. Overtime hours in Nebraska have quadrupled from 2010 to reflect a decrease in officers working longer hours. Florida temporarily closed three of its 140 prisons due to understaffing. The vacancy rate has nearly doubled in the past year. Federal prison guards in the United States are pickingeting at their facilities to protest understaffing. Everyone from prison teachers and dentists is being pulled in to fill security shifts.
Reporters from The Marshall Project, The Associated Press and others have been speaking with officials, workers, and prisoners in over a dozen prisons to learn more about the implications of staffing shortages.
According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, 93% of its frontline guard positions have been filled. There are less than 1,000 vacant positions. However, workers in many prisons claim they are feeling the pinch because others are being conscripted to replace missing officers.
Last week, Attorney General Merrick Galrland was asked about federal prison staffing.
Garland informed the Senate Judiciary Committee, that Lisa Monaco, Deputy Attorney General, was working with the bureau on staffing issues.
State Department of Corrections Secretary Jeff Zmuda of Kansas testified before the legislature about the unique problems he has seen. Kansas has over 400 unfilled positions for uniformed officers. He expects that this number will grow as other employers lure workers with better pay.
According to Doug Koebernick (inspector general for the Nebraska correctional system), quitting can cause a snowball effect. He said, "People leave, which then creates more overtime, stress and more vacant positions." It's like a spiral. Many corrections officers claimed that they had to work overtime because fewer people came to work. Texas guards can work up to 16 hours a day.
In prisons, increasing lockdowns are a result of a growing number of guards. Because there aren’t enough guards to monitor activities, restrictions that were originally put in place to stop COVID-19 spreading have been maintained. Some people in prison claim they are unable to take classes, take part in group therapy sessions, or exercise in the recreation yard. This can lead to de facto isolation for the general population and near-total lockdown for those already in segregation.
Anthony Haynes, who is currently on Texas' death row and is only half-staffed, said that if they get rec once per week it's a good week. "We don't always get showers."
Haynes' claims were not addressed by a spokesperson for Texas Department of Criminal Justice, but he acknowledged that Texas prisons are struggling to staff.
Robert Hurst, a spokesperson for COVID-19, stated in an email that staffing was often affected by economic surges and competing job opportunities before COVID-19. These problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic. We also acknowledge that the job as a correctional officer in state government is the most difficult." He said that Texas had closed six of its 100 facilities in the past year because of staffing issues.
Kansas has reduced job training and decreased supervision after release. Understaffing means that two-thirds of Nebraska's men can't visit their families on weekends, when most families are free to travel.
It is a constant struggle to be isolated. One man from Illinois' Pontiac Correctional Center wrote, "As of October," that he had not had a yard in two weeks. Officials at the center report that 35% of all corrections officer positions are unfilled. Lawyers suing the state prison system for a lack of mental health care compiled his testimony. "I feel overwhelmed... I can't speak about my problems with anyone. Because there is nothing else, I pace back-and-forth and talk to my self.
Prisoners and lawyers claim that mental health care is declining as prisoners become more desperate. Illinois has canceled one-on-1 therapy. This means that any counseling available is only given through a cell door in full view of the rest of the tier. Alan Mills, attorney at the Uptown People's Law Center, stated that the state corrections department was sued for inadequate mental and physical care.
The Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman said Pontiac will continue to offer out-of-cell programming as well as one-on-one counseling. Lindsey Hess, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections stated that while staffing issues have affected scheduling, the department remains committed to providing the best mental and medical healthcare possible.
Washington and Georgia corrections officials did not respond to inquiries for comment after the governor stopped the transfer of individuals from county jails into prisons for two consecutive weeks because of staffing changes.
For court cases, Dr. Homer Venters inspects prison conditions across the country. He is a former chief physician for the New York City jail system. As the quality of care falls, understaffing will result in an increase in prison deaths.
Venters stated that "things are worse behind bars now" than they were for a long period of time. Venters said that there are many people who have left. This means that basic services like scheduling appointments and getting to appointments are not being provided as they were five years ago.
Some prisons are also seeing an increase in violence. The Georgia Department of Corrections was recently sued by the Southern Center for Human Rights for unsafe and inhumane conditions. Between January 2020 and August 20,21, there were 48 homicides and 38 suicides in Georgia's prisons. In 2017, there were eight homicides. After being held in prison for several weeks, hundreds of prisoners at three state prisons protested last year. They were monitored by only six guards and kept there for as little as a week.
According to state documents, corrections officers had a 56% annual turnover rate in July. 40% of these jobs were unfilled. In September, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it was investigating the corrections department. It cited understaffing as the primary concern.
Corrections officers say that they are working harder than ever to find new staff. They have increased their social media presence and held job fairs in person. They raised Indiana's starting pay for corrections officers from $19 an hour to $11 per hour. Other perks include higher pay for critical units, higher salaries, earlier raises, and perks such as hiring bonuses. In Kansas, they also offer extra time off to employees who refer new employees.
Some cadets may not be hired in time, however.
Brandon Robert Graham began training at Walla Walla State Penitentiary, Washington in August 2020. He was promoted to the top tier in two weeks. He said, "They were in such an hiring crisis that they needed me to be a rapid hire." He was initially excited about the "great benefits" and the high salary. He began to look elsewhere as more entry-level positions became available.
"I was working night shift. He said that he never saw his fiancee. "I worked so many overtime hours that I thought I was sick." He quit in July to search for a job.