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To Address the Corrections Staffing Crisis, Think Outside the Cell

Our prisons don’t have enough staffers to protect inmates or themselves. Better pay, benefits and working conditions are needed, and there are other effective strategies.

New corrections officers listen to instructors during a training session in Missouri. The state has been locating prison facilities closer to major population centers to provide better access to a larger potential corrections workforce.
(J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
America’s prisons may be succeeding at keeping incarcerated people inside, but they are increasingly also keeping out the people needed to run them effectively. A rash of corrections staffing vacancies has been escalating since the start of the pandemic. This threatens incarcerated people and staff still on the job, as well as public safety.

For example, nearly 34 percent of staff positions are vacant in North Carolina prisons, and in Florida incarcerated people have been waiting for months in local jails because staff shortages have prevented the prison system from picking them up on a timely basis. In New York City, pandemic-exacerbated staff shortages almost paralyzed operations at Rikers Island, the city’s largest jail complex.

Even when vacancies are not pervasive enough to stall intakes, they create severe security challenges, putting the lives of staff and incarcerated people alike in danger. “Staffing shortages, in my opinion, have directly led to jail deaths,” said Sheriff Captain David Myers of the San Diego County Jail, responding to a news report on spiraling overtime costs.

Staff shortages are also interfering with the operation of programs designed to reduce recidivism. In Colorado, for example, teachers and social workers at correctional institutions have been required to fill shifts as prison guards.

With private-sector hiring remaining robust even as the nation’s workforce shrinks, there seems little cause for optimism that the correctional staff crisis will solve itself. But while there is no silver bullet, there are promising short-term and long-term solutions. Forget the cliché about thinking outside the box; we need to start thinking outside the cell.

In the near term, in addition to attracting more staff, states and local governments must safely reduce unnecessary incarceration. At the local level, this means ensuring that low-risk defendants don’t languish in jail simply because they can’t afford bail. Bail reform measures of this kind have safely lowered local jail populations in New Jersey.

Meanwhile, states should maintain the new or broadened pathways for release that many, along with the federal government, instituted at the beginning of the pandemic, allowing for a risk-based review of people in certain categories, such as the medically vulnerable. Of the approximately 11,000 people released from federal prisons to slow the spread of COVID-19, only a few hundred have been reincarcerated, mostly for alcohol or drug use or for technical violations; as of last month just 17 had been sent back to prison for committing new crimes.

When it comes to recruiting and retaining qualified staff, competitive pay and benefits are obviously important, and Florida, South Carolina and Texas are among states that have recently raised wages. But just as important is improving conditions behind bars. Not only are many prisons in states such as Alabama, Florida and Texas not air-conditioned, but factors such as the absence of natural light, a lack of officer wellness programs and unresponsive employee-grievance processes breed job dissatisfaction. These issues must be addressed.

So must the issue of abysmal annual turnover rates, which exceeded 40 percent in Texas prisons in 2021. A key strategy is creating more rungs on the professional development ladder. For example, if a correctional officer obtains a certification as a counselor, which may help him or her interact with incarcerated people and even assist in administering programs, that could be reflected in a salary boost.

Additionally, legislation like a measure under consideration in Michigan would allow retired correctional officers to return to work for a limited time with no benefits while maintaining the pension benefits they had earned. Governments might also consider what one private prison operator is doing: providing staff housing around some of its facilities, attracting some couples who work inside.

In the long term, states must transform their correctional infrastructure. One of the most promising strategies is gradually replacing antiquated and remote prisons and youth lockups with better facilities. Prisons and jails with more modern designs that have better sight lines and technology can provide a safer environment with the same or fewer security staff.

States should also look to community-based models like Missouri’s longstanding small group homes located in communities around the state for youth who need residential services. Not only has Missouri achieved recidivism rates substantially below that of other states, but locating facilities closer to major population centers provides access to a larger potential corrections workforce while also making it easier for incarcerated people to maintain family relationships and re-enter society through programs such as work release. Additionally, placing facilities near major health-care providers helps address the shortage of medical personnel behind bars by allowing clinicians to split time between correctional and noncorrectional clients.

Ultimately, policymakers must begin to view acute corrections staff shortages as the “new normal” – a situation that will not correct itself as economic conditions change. Corrections agencies have typically found staffing easier when the economy cools off, but they face an aging society, greater awareness of the susceptibility of those in congregate settings to communicable diseases, and worker shortages even in more lucrative competing sectors such as truck driving. Through a combination of strategies such as right-sizing and transforming facilities, upgrading working conditions, improving pay and benefits, and casting a wider net, we can address this vacancy crisis effectively before more damage is done to incarcerated people, corrections staff and public safety.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Marc A. Levin is the chief policy counsel for the Council on Criminal Justice. He can be reached at and on X at @marcalevin. He and Khalil A. Cumberbatch lead the council’s Centering Justice initiative.
Khalil A. Cumberbatch is director of strategic partnerships at the Council on Criminal Justice and can be reached at and on X at @KhaCumberbatch. He and Marc A. Levin lead the council’s Centering Justice Initiative.
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