The Hidden Threat: A Shortage of Correctional Officers

Plus more public-sector management news you need to know.
November 6, 2014
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

“He hit me in the forehead,” a correctional officer recounted to WKSU in Ohio. “The punch caught me off guard.  I stumbled into the seating area where I became pinned, bent over backwards in between the chairs and the tables.” The story just gets worse from there.

The risk to safety of corrections officers and inmates is accelerating in a number of states in which there’s a shortage of prison guards, which is certainly the case in Ohio. What’s happening here? Many states simply don’t seem to have put a high priority on providing sufficient payroll to lure men and women to work in unpleasant 24-hour-a-day institutions. What’s more in many states, prisons are  located in remote parts of the state. That’s not a great way to attract fresh new talent. Additionally, though training of correctional officers varies from state to state, according to Jess Maghan, director of the Forum for Comparative Correction, “Training is one of the first things that’s cut.”

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Alabama may be something of an extreme. During fiscal years 2011 to 2013, the state cut more than $12.6 million in correctional salaries. At the same time, it pulled back on recruitment and retention programs. The result is that staffing levels are at about 61 percent of their prescribed strength, according to a piece in the Birmingham News.

In some states with shortages of correctional officers, leaders and managers are  simply not very concerned about the issue, despite its ramifications for  officer and inmate safety. “There’s not much thought about hiring correctional officers,” Alabama State Representative Cam Ward told us. “They see that they need to build more roads. They see the Medicaid issue. Everyone has their own priorities. But corrections are a hidden threat. You can look at some maximum security facilities and see one correctional officer overseeing 85 or 90.”

Savings from budget cuts may be limited, though. Alabama, for example, only saved about half of its $12.6 million in cuts; the remainder went to overtime. Then there’s Virginia. According to an interim legislative study, which was designed to look closely at corrections staffing issues, it turned out that these shortages have “led the Department of Corrections to pay a significant amount of overtime wages, including $166,000 in July 2014 alone.”

There’s one obvious non-fiscal downside to overtime: guards wind up worn out when working as many as 16 hours at a stretch. “When they’re on the 13th, 14th 15th hour, they’re not as sharp as they should be,” says Matt Taylor, an audit manager in Georgia.

We spend a lot of time talking to city, county and state government leaders on the assumption that these conversations will keep us on top of the way things really work. But we had a wakeup call over dinner the other night with a contractor friend of ours. He was telling us about the number of seemingly low-priority projects that had been  coming his way over the last couple of months.

Why? He explained that in election years, constituents, particularly in relatively small communities, are suddenly imbued with the power to get roads fixed, curbs repaired and so on. Many of the typical methods for deciding which small capital projects to fund  go out the window when a voter or a handful of voters can get their requests to leader running for reelection. Maybe we’re just naïve not to have always recognized this reality.

Two DC government websites were relaunched last week. Track DC, which provides access to performance measurement information, and District of Columbia Open Data, which gives residents a powerful way to access both old and new data sets. The newly designed websites have spiffier charts, give more attention to the needs of mobile users and provide a way to export data. (Good move. Lately we've been hearing lots of complaints from people frustrated with data-rich sites that only let you download via pdf.)

One of the bravest aspects of the DC government's online presence is Grade.DC.Gov, which invites visitors to grade the services they're receiving. Grades that were calculated for September 2014 show a big range -- with the Metropolitan Police Department getting a D (the lowest grade) and Fire and Emergency Management Services an A+ (the highest).

So far, the number of residents availing themselves of the ability to grade their services is small. But we congratulate DC on including the number of graders -- a bit of important information that's often missing when government websites report citizen response.

Alaska was the only state that offered full online voting services to registered voters in Tuesday's midterm election, according to the Council of State Governments (CSG) Overseas Voting Initiative. According to preliminary reports, voting through the electronic system went smoothly and over 4,000 voters logged in to vote online; expectations in the state are that significantly more citizens will take advantage of this approach to voting in the next election.

Voters have tested the system a couple of times before -- first in the 2012 presidential election and then in the 2014 primary. It is designed to give Alaskans, many of whom live in remote places and have only slow mail delivery, a way to reliably cast their ballots. "It's an online voting laboratory," says Kalisa Kamanzi, director of the CSG initiative. "There's a real demand for this. You want to provide accessible elections and many ways for people to vote. Alaska does this really well."

When people talk about problems with turnover, typically they’re thinking of turnover in low level jobs in government. But more attention needs to be paid to a phenomenon that is equally or more debilitating to the smooth functioning of cities, counties and states: turnover at the top levels. We’ve heard a variety of figures, but for jobs like state chief information officers, Medicaid directors and homeland security leaders, it appears that the old-timers are the folks who have lasted in these jobs for more than two years. Given the complexity of these positions, it seems unlikely that any office-holder, however brilliant, can be functioning at full steam in much less than a year. And that, in turn means that these agencies are frequently running with leaders who are still climbing a steep learning curve.

“The many governments within a single metropolitan area are almost designed to fight among themselves because state law makes them largely dependent on locally raised tax revenues ... People, pies, cars, rails, and the nebulous entity known as the economy might flow seamlessly across local boundaries, but sales and property tax dollars rarely do.” -- Bruce Katz,  founding director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program

Cybersecurity is often found on the list of the most significant challenges facing state and local governments. A recent report created by consulting firm Deloitte and the National Association of State CIOs explored the rapidly expanding role of chief information security officers (who typically report to chief information officers).

One of their findings is that this role is increasingly gaining authority and consistent responsibilities from state to state. They’re responsible for “establishing a strategy, execution of that strategy, risk management, communicating effectively with senior executives,” and so on.

The big obstacle is apparently that “budgets are still not sufficient to fully implement effective cybersecurity programs.”