States Face Correctional Officer Shortage Amid A Cultural Stigma
More than 1.3 million people are incarcerated in state prisons in this country, and keeping those prisons running requires tens of thousands of corrections officers. But right now, some states are facing major staffing shortages.
Much of this shortfall is because of the strong economy, but recruiters also are struggling with the job's cultural stigma.
Cadets at Wyoming's Department of Corrections Training Academy are practicing how they'll handcuff prisoners. In a few weeks this scenario will be very real, but right now everyone is pretty relaxed.
These cadets are in high demand, here and across the country. Wyoming's correctional staff is currently 20 percent short, and Michigan, Kansas, Texas and other states face similar shortfalls.
New recruit Carlos Galan says he ended up joining Wyoming Corrections by chance, after his job as a food service manager dried up.
"I was out of a job — I had to get out of my comfort zone," Galan says.
Galan says he has always wanted to work in law enforcement.
He grew up in Southern California, and in the back seat during his parents' commute, he says, "you saw the highway patrol training academy there, so that sparked my interest in getting into law enforcement."
But it never crossed his mind, Galan says, that he would want to be a corrections officer at a prison someday.
That's not what recruiters hope to hear.
Lt. Aaron Blair, an instructor at the academy and a former corrections officer, says most of the cadets he gets see the job as a steppingstone to a police or sheriff's department — or as just a job, not a career.
"Law enforcement on the street, they get far more interaction with the good part of society," he says. "We know, going in those gates every day, we're dealing with convicted felons. It can wear on a person, become very dark."
Blair says corrections officers do far more than baby-sit inmates. Cadets here will learn a conversation technique called verbal judo, along with restraint training.
But he says when recruits picture the job, they still see the infamous prison guard villain from the movie Cool Hand Luke.
"The guy with the sunglasses, holding the shotgun — a knuckle-dragger, I guess," he says.
Blair and prison officials in other states say raises would help make the field more competitive. Nationwide, the average starting wage is about $15 an hour.
Some states are offering recruitment and retention bonuses, but for now, every shift has to be covered. That has officers working a lot of overtime; in Kansas, Oklahoma, and other states with severe shortages, overtime is mandatory.
Leann Bertsch with the Association of State Correctional Administrators says that's a problem.
"They're not meant to not have days off; they're not meant to work extraordinarily long shifts," she says. "That creates dangerous situations."
Oklahoma, for example, has a correctional officer shortage of about 33 percent — and the highest inmate homicide rate in the country.
Bertsch's group has fought for more funding for corrections, but she says legislators often prioritize law enforcement that's closer to home.
"They're working behind the walls, behind the fences, and oftentimes the policymakers who are setting the compensation for correctional officers don't appreciate the difficult nature of their jobs," Bertsch says.
David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, says high vacancy and turnover rates often do correlate to more violent incidents.
"We need to look at this as a public-safety position every bit as much as police officers and firefighters," he says.
And Fathi says safety isn't the only thing lost when prisons run short on manpower.
"They feed the prisoners, take them to the medical clinic, take them to the recreation yard. So if you don't have enough officers, every aspect of prison operation breaks down," Fathi says.
And unless something changes, the risk of breakdown will continue to grow. After declining slightly for a few years, the U.S. prison population was going up again by the end of 2013.
Copyright 2015 Wyoming Public Radio