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Every state in the nation has reported prison staffing shortages since 2017, according to research by Shadowproof.
This is concerning because “staff shortages” are historically used to push for greater investments in prison systems, oftentimes riding reform waves like the one the United States is experiencing currently.
Officials claim investments are part of the modernization and improvement of carceral systems. Yet, as evidenced by the recurrence of reform movements every few decades, violence and abuse persist, and the staffing issues never truly abate.
In the first month of 2020, journalists called attention to so-called staffing crises in several states. Such issues were raised in the vast majority of other states in 2019.
Mississippi garnered national recognition for the deaths and atrocious conditions at Parchman. Staff levels were among the first excuses for such problems.
“Almost half of the roughly 1,300 corrections positions in three major facilities in Mississippi remain unfilled,” CBS News reported on January 23, pointing to a lawsuit blaming “the recent outbreaks of violence on the ‘culmination of years of severe understaffing and neglect at Mississippi’s prisons.’”
South Carolina prisons are rife with violence, neglect, and inhumane conditions. An incident at Lee Correctional Institution sparked the 2018 national prison strike.
In media and political circles, this was attributed to understaffing and contraband. Prison officials readily blame understaffing for enabling the flow of contraband into facilities despite the regular arrest of correction officers for that exact offense.
South Carolina’s The State reported in April 2019 that prison leaders said understaffing was a “long-standing problem,” adding, “From providing medical care to mitigating violence to rehabilitating inmates inside prisons, the staffing crisis is a weight around the department’s ankles, resulting in high staff turnover and a dangerous work environment for those who remain on the job.”
In nearly every state, understaffing accompanies millions upon millions of dollars in overtime payments to corrections officers working extra shifts. Overtime is mandatory in many prison systems with officers working long and often back-to-back shifts.
The focus on staffing needs over decarceration creates resistance to efforts to reduce correctional spending. All too often, the only conceivable remedy for this situation seems to be throwing even more money at corrections departments, in no small part thanks to the power of officer unions.
The rhetoric is so constrained that only further investments in carceral capacity are seen as the solution.
“It’s getting so bad in Florida’s prisons that legislators are not only receiving dire warnings from Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch. They also have heard from a cadre of state prison wardens—a much rarer occurrence in the state capitol,” the Tampa Bay Times reported on January 3. “The wardens are urging state senators to address desperate conditions with adequate funding. Those conditions include ignored routine maintenance, low salaries, routine 12-hour overtime shifts, poor working conditions and gang violence.”
In October, the Florida Phoenix reported the state paid $77 million to prison staff, “an exploding price tag stemming from the inability to hire and keep correctional officers at the state’s Department of Corrections.”
Alabama’s prison officials evacuated most of one of the state’s most atrocious prisons, and the department faces a federal inquiry. Again, these conditions are attributed to the fact that the prisons have “suffered for many years from chronic understaffing and overcrowding.”
“At Holman, in particular, the Justice Department found that the prison’s staff of authorized correctional officers was less than a fifth of what it should be,” declared the Delaware Republic on January 29.
Meanwhile, Alabama prison staff made over $26.6 million in overtime payments in 2016. One CO made almost as much as the governor and, with a base salary of nearly $39,000, he brought home almost $118,000 in 2017 thanks to overtime.
In 2017, the Ohio prison system paid corrections officers and other staff the most out of any other state agency: $61.7 million. This was nearly $49 million more in overtime compensation than the Department of Public Safety, which took the second-most amount in the state.
Terrible conditions in Colorado’s prisons are attributed to understaffing, according to a CorrectionsOne report from January 2019. The state paid $19.7 million in overtime to corrections officers in 2018.
“Despite offering incentives like sign-on bonuses, the pay is only $41,000 a year. The [Colorado] Department of Corrections requested more money to increase pay and hire more officers over the years, but requests have been denied because lawmakers want criminal justice reform first.”
New Jersey paid $38 million in overtime in 2018 while corrections officials complain about high turnover and fewer recruits.
In Rhode Island, 23 corrections officers made over $100,000 or more a year in overtime compensation. The department as a whole paid out $30.4 million in overtime in 2018. This was attributed to a “hiring freeze that diminished the ranks.”
Arizona officer vacancy is expected to reach 25 percent by 2021. At the same time, “62% of all the overtime paid out by the state in 2017-18 came from one department, the Department of Corrections. More than $40 million were spent on overtime, more than every other state agency combined.”
In Wisconsin, prison officials complained that it was difficult to hire and retain workers, and that staff struggle with low morale and should be paid more. But Wisconsin Department of Corrections “spent 500% of its overtime budget for the current two-year budget period after just one year.”
The president of the local corrections officer union in Michigan said facilities were “anywhere from 30 to 40 officers short, which results in daily, mandatory shifts of overtime,” which came close to $70 million in 2017.
The corrections officer union in Pennsylvania contended the ratio of staff to prisoners was 100-to-1. “In many instances, officers are being left alone with 100 or more inmates at any given time. No officer should ever be left alone. This must be addressed.”
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections is on track to spend $108 million in overtime by the end of June, “even as the state prison population has declined at a historic rate,” according to Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.
“North Carolina paid prison officers more than $45 million in overtime last year, about 10 times more than it did in 2011, data show,” reported to the Charlotte Observer.
“Maryland’s prisons are facing what union officials and state lawmakers are calling a ‘staffing crisis’ ― a shortage of about 1,000 officers, about 20% of positions,” the Baltimore Sun reported. The vacancies are on top of the 929 correctional officer positions Governor Larry Hogan’s administration eliminated as the prison population became smaller, according to legislative analysts.
The state paid $129 million in overtime to correctional officers in 2019 and expects to pay $150 million in overtime this year.
The Illinois Department of Corrections used 977,742 hours of overtime at a cost of nearly $43 million in fiscal year 2018. California spent $340 million on overtime compensation in 2015.
Wisconsin has fought excessive vacancies by “handing out $2,000 bonuses to those who take jobs at some of the most under-staffed prisons” while spending $50.6 million on overtime in 2018.
Oklahoma spent $15 million on overtime in the face of staff shortages, and even tried to recruit teenagers out of high school.
New York state prisons aren’t short-staffed, but that hasn’t stopped opportunistic lawmakers and union officials from claiming otherwise. It also didn’t stop the state from spending $221 million on overtime in 2017.
Indiana was perhaps the lone exception to the rule. While state prison officials have not declared there’s an understanding issue, county jails have raised the alarm. This is partially due to recent criminal justice reforms in the state that sent people to county jails that would have otherwise gone to prison in previous years.
Sometimes staffing issues encourage contracts with private prison companies and county jails, both of which have their own staffing issues.
With low staffing levels, a relatively few corrections officers in many states can make more than $100,000 a year including overtime. Presumably, if staffing levels are where they should be, there’s less overtime but far more in employee salaries and benefits. How is it financially sustainable to increase either on top of the mounting health care and other costs of caging people? Will this check ever bounce?
Whether this is a deliberate choice or not, the rhetorical framing of prison crises as primarily staff crises narrows the available remedies.
Predictably, lawmakers, law enforcement, and even many prisoner advocates call for more officers. They demand more generous salaries and benefits, which they argue will attract less-barbaric corrections officers. Greater investments in technology should be made, new bedspace or updated facilities must be built, and care of all kinds must be entrenched further into the prison system, they argue.
In the end, staffing and recruitment always get more airtime than decriminalization, sentencing reform, and clemency.
A deluge of arrests, the layering charges, the coercion of pleas, the high rate of convictions, and long sentences are seen as almost a completely separate issue.