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Thousands of Unfilled Jail Jobs, Millions in Overtime, 'Zero Room for Error'

States across the country are struggling to staff their prisons and jails. The shortages are costing them in overtime -- and lives lost when inmates riot against conditions likely worsened by overworked guards.

A corrections officer bends down to talk to a prisoner in a cell.
A corrections officer bends down to talk to a prisoner in a maximum-security cell in North Dakota.
(David Kidd)
Late last summer, Rodney Miller, the executive director of the West Virginia Sheriffs’ Association and a state lawmaker, witnessed some things that shocked him.

He and other West Virginia legislators visited the state’s prisons and jails, observing from towers and from cell blocks. They saw inmates exchanging contraband drugs, inmates brought to medical care bloody from fights, and sleep-deprived guards struggling to respond to it all. 

“Corrections officers were working six or seven days a week, 10- to 12- and sometimes 16-hour shifts. Some of the corrections officers were having to sleep at the facilities and then going back to work,” says Miller, who worked in law enforcement for 33 years and says he’s never seen prison workforce shortages as severe as they are now.

Shortly after those visits, a prisoner escaped. He was quickly caught, but the event further emphasized to lawmakers that having understaffed lockups and overworked corrections officers is a big problem.

“We saw that things like that could happen from overwork and trying to cover such a large facility with a minimal staff,” says Miller.

The situation was so bad that Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency in December. He ordered the National Guard -- and staff from agencies like homeland security and capitol police -- to help manage the facilities.

These issues aren’t unique to West Virginia. The difficulty in hiring and keeping corrections officers has sent overtime costs soaring, and contributed to safety and security issues, all over the country.  

In South Carolina, where a deadly riot in April left seven inmates dead, the state had 627 vacant positions in the corrections system. In Nevada, inmate numbers have grown just 2 percent in the last three years, but overtime costs have jumped 30 percent, causing the corrections budget to be $15 million over. In Wisconsin, prison overtime cost $42 million in 2017, and there were 920 unfilled corrections jobs in April. And in Delaware, where prisoners took control during a deadly riot last year, 38 percent of the overtime costs paid to all state employees the year before had been used for corrections employees.

In Delaware’s case, an independent review came down hard on the use of excessive overtime as a factor that set the stage for the violent event. The report noted that “correction officers were described as being so exhausted that it was ‘chipping away at security and behavior.’” 

“When you have corrections officers working so much overtime and not having a break or a personal life, complacency sets in at times, and they may not be as sharp,” says Miller. “There are people housed in those facilities who will take advantage of the situation. There is zero room for error, and if you’re tired and don’t have your full faculties to do your job properly, then bad things happen.”

The obvious way to reduce overtime is to hire more corrections officers. And some states are doing just that -- or at least trying.

After the deadly prison riot in April, South Carolina’s governor issued an executive order, providing for expedited hiring and salary reform. In March, West Virginia Gov. Justice signed a major legislative package designed to make corrections positions more attractive. It includes, among other things, a $2,000 raise every year for three years. Michigan added $9 million to its budget this year for academy training for 359 new officers. The state also has been working closely with the corrections officers union to improve working conditions, and a special team has been created to examine the mental health issues that can come with the job.

Meanwhile, billboards are up all over Michigan, and radio and online advertisements are promoting the many jobs available in jails and prisons. 

It’s not an easy sell. 

“It’s not a job that most people consider,” says Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections. “Growing up, people play cops and robbers, not convicts and corrections officers. You don’t grow up thinking ‘I want to be a corrections officer.’”

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Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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