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Prison Staff Shortages Take Toll on Guards, Incarcerated People

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Prison Staff Shortages Take Toll on Guards, Incarcerated People
Prison guard tower
A prison worker is visible in a guard tower at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's William G. McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas, at sunset. In February, a third of the jobs inside the Texas correctional system were vacant, an all-time high.
Eric Gay The Associated Press

HOUSTON — The pay is rising — but so are average temperatures, and because many of the workplaces are not air-conditioned, toiling for this employer often means broiling in the Texas heat. The job is stable and recession-proof but also potentially dangerous, with an ever-present threat of violence.

There are drawbacks to being a prison guard in Texas, but there are advantages, too. Wearing the gray and blue uniforms of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Frederick Simon and Kieshi Booker accentuated the positives as they looked for recruits at a recent job fair in the Gulfton neighborhood of southwest Houston.

Simon, 61, told potential job applicants that in his 34 years as a corrections officer, he has been promoted numerous times and has earned a salary that has enabled him to “take care of my wife, my family.” For Booker, 45, working in Texas prisons is a family tradition: Her father was a corrections officer, as are several other relatives.

Simon and Booker, aided by two plainclothes recruiters, scored some successes: In three hours, they received 37 applications and held 15 interviews, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. But there are thousands of empty slots to fill.

In February, 8,043 of the 24,020 jobs inside the Texas correctional system were vacant, an all-time high. A recent pay raise has helped lower that number to just under 7,000. But Bryan Collier, executive director of the agency, said staffing remains the “most significant operational issue.”

Texas isn’t alone. Amid a nationwide worker shortage in various industries, prison systems across the country are desperate to reverse an exodus of corrections officers that administrators and prison experts describe as the worst ever. To attract more officers, states are raising salaries, offering hiring bonuses, reducing the minimum age to 18 and ratcheting up recruiting efforts with advertisements on billboards and social media.

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“You’re going to see devastation that’s unbelievable.”

The shortages have had a severe impact on daily prison life, forcing officers to work mandatory overtime and undercutting their fundamental duty to oversee and escort people who are incarcerated, heightening tensions inside the prison walls.

“Without staffing present, a lot of things aren’t getting done at the unit,” said Amite Dominick, president of Texas Prisons Community Advocates, a group that advocates for incarcerated people. Because of staff shortages, inmates often endure long waits to be taken to showers, meals, medical visits, the commissary and other appointments, she said. 

Like more than a dozen other states, Texas does not provide air-conditioning in many of its prison cells and dormitories. People incarcerated in Texas have told family members that staff shortages have impeded the delivery of ice and water to un-air-conditioned cells and dormitories and prevented the speedy transfer of heat-stressed inmates to air-conditioned respite areas.

Brian Dawe, a former Massachusetts state corrections officer and director of One Voice United, a nationwide organization that supports corrections officers and other staff, called the shortages “the worst I’ve seen” in more than 40 years of involvement in corrections issues. “This is a staffing crisis across the country right now.”

“NOW HIRING,” asserts a message alongside a photo of an officer’s sleeve patch at the top of the website for the Georgia Department of Corrections, which has reportedly sustained officer vacancy rates exceeding 70% in some units. A similar message — “We’re hiring” — recently headlined the website of the Kansas Department of Corrections, which had a 23% vacancy rate for uniformed personnel as of July.

Recruiter Kieshi Booker
Recruiter Kieshi Booker touts the benefits of becoming a corrections officer in the state prison system run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as 28-year-old Denetria Smith ponders a career move from a Houston security position.
David Montgomery

In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis activated National Guard members earlier this month in the face of what the governor described as a “severe shortage” of corrections officers. The state’s 24% vacancy rate has forced the temporary closure of some housing units. National Guard troops are being temporarily deployed in certain sections of prisons, such as the towers and exits and entrances, so experienced prison workers can cover cellblocks and dormitories.

“Florida prisons have been plagued with shortages for years,” said Gary York, a retired prison inspector for the Florida Department of Corrections and a columnist for Corrections1, which provides information on the prison industry. “They are overworked and burned out and leaving for other jobs.”

To recruit and retain more officers, Florida recently raised starting salaries to $41,600 and added a $1,000 hiring bonus for high-vacancy units. Mark Tallent, chief financial officer for the Florida Department of Corrections, told lawmakers during a recent hearing that the pay raise has boosted morale, eased stress and turned hiring from a net loss to a net gain. 

“We think we’re definitely trending in the right direction,” he said.

Turning the Ship

Jason Clark, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice chief of staff, said he is confident that Texas can find the officers it needs.

“We’re moving in a better direction, but it’s going to take a while to turn that ship,” he said.

Helping steer the vessel is 54-year-old West Point graduate David Yebra, who leads the department’s training and leader development division and directs an expanding recruiting drive that includes a “very intense” online presence as well as billboards, print media and appeals to targeted audiences, such as military bases and workforce commissions.

Next month, the department plans to open a new career center in Huntsville, its headquarters city. Featuring kiosks and interview rooms to screen applicants on the spot, the center is designed to accelerate hiring. Recruiters also are being dispatched to dozens of cities to attend job fairs like the recent one in Houston.

One success story from that event was Denetria Smith, 28, who applied for a job after huddling with Booker and was notified this week that she was cleared to begin one of the agency’s training academies.  

“I’m proud of myself,” said Smith, who is currently working as an overnight security guard in Houston. She acknowledged that she was “kind of scared” about the prospect of working in a prison but also wanted “to try something new.” 

Others who displayed at least a passing interest ranged from middle-aged men who said they were between careers to young ride-share drivers. Elysa Almaguer, a 19-year-old who attended the fair with her father and was among those who filled out an application, said she developed an interest in public service in high school.

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Another prison system waging an aggressive hiring campaign is the South Carolina Department of Corrections, which has implemented a new pay and benefits package enabling starting corrections officers to earn between $39,140 and $48,925 along with a $7,500 signing bonus.

Chrysti Shain, a spokesperson for the South Carolina prisons, said applications have doubled since the pay raise went into effect. Boosting salaries for “woefully underpaid” corrections officers has been a top priority for Corrections Director Bryan Stirling since he took the job in 2013, Shain said.

Salaries for corrections officers vary, with higher pay in states such as California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Oregon, and lower compensation in many Southern states, according to corrections experts and salary research sites. The current average salary for a corrections officer in the United States is $48,193, according to Salary.com. Salaries typically range from $42,909 to $53,482, based on education, skill level and experience.

‘A Tough Job’

As a result of the 15% pay increase that took effect in April, the annual salary in Texas ranges from $41,674 for first-year corrections officers to $51,338 for those with six years or more of service. Officers in the state’s 23 maximum security units get a 3% bump, pushing the salary range to between $42,924 and $52,879.

Even the most positive spin in recruiting drives can’t disguise that being a corrections officer is a “tough job,” Clark admitted. And staff shortages have made the negative aspects even worse.

Joe Pomponio, a retired Texas officer, recalled the two times he was assaulted during his 25 years on the job. Once, he was struck in the forehead by a hurled can of tuna stuffed in a sock. Another time, he was hit in the leg by a “spear” — fashioned by soaking a magazine or newspaper in water and then using the elastic waistband from a pair of underwear to propel it through the air.

“You would not believe the ingenuity that an offender can use in a penitentiary with what little they have,” Pomponio said. Nevertheless, he described his tenure as a “rewarding career” that “put a roof over my head, allowed me to raise three kids” and offered generous health and retirement benefits.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has recorded 106 serious staff assaults this year that required medical treatment beyond first aid, spokesperson Amanda Hernandez said.  

“The physical dangers are real,” corrections consultant Gary Cornelius, who has authored several books and papers on the challenges facing corrections officers, wrote in an email to Stateline. “While most inmates go by the rules and just want to do their time and be released, some are dangerous.”

Corrections experts also cite higher than normal rates of suicide, PTSD and alcoholism among corrections officers. And the COVID-19 pandemic that swept through America’s prisons took a heavy toll on staff members and incarcerated people. As of Sept. 22, according to the COVID Prison Project, there have been more than 622,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 2,900 deaths among incarcerated people, and more than 229,000 cases and more than 275 deaths among prison staff.

Even as states take steps to boost pay, unions and organizations representing corrections officers say salaries are still not where they should be. 

“Considering the job, what's being expected out of the profession today, and the level of stress that comes with the work, the pay and benefits certainly don't compensate fairly anyone that's coming into this profession,” said Andy Potter, founder of One Voice United, the corrections officer group. “They’re being expected to do more, and the stressors are higher, the challenges are higher, and so is the danger.”

Despite the challenges, many former and current corrections officers say an overarching benefit is the opportunity to serve the public and, potentially, see incarcerated people turn their lives around.

Yebra, of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, an Iraq war veteran who served 23 years in the Army, said the recruiting effort he heads accents that aspect of the job. He calls being a corrections officer “a very honorable way of life” akin to service in law enforcement or the military.

The Texas recruiting offensive, he said, is showing promising results, but he acknowledged that prison administrators have a long way to go. 

“It’s not a high-five and put the cleats away,” he said. “Yeah, we can celebrate the victories, but it’s a long, long game, and we’re in it.”

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