US prisons face staffing shortages as officers quit amid COVID


NEW YORK: At a Georgia State House of Representatives hearing on prison conditions in September, a prison officer called to testify, interrupting his shift to tell lawmakers how bad the conditions were become disastrous.
On a “good day,” he told lawmakers, he had maybe six or seven officers overseeing about 1,200 people. He said he had recently been assigned to take care of 400 prisoners on his own. There were not enough nurses to provide medical care.
“All the officers (…) absolutely hate working there,” said the officer, who did not give his name for fear of reprisals.
In Texas, Lance Lowry quits after 20 years as a corrections officer to become a long-haul trucker because he couldn’t handle the work anymore. Watching friends and co-workers die of COVID-19, along with dwindling support from his superiors, was wearing him down.
“I wish I had stayed until I was 50,” said Lowry, 48. “But the pandemic has changed that.”
Staffing shortages have long been a challenge for prison agencies, given the low pay and grueling nature of the work. But the coronavirus pandemic — and its impact on the labor market — has thrown many correctional systems into crisis. Officers are retiring and resigning en masse, while civil servants are struggling to recruit new employees. And some prisons whose population plummeted during the pandemic have seen their numbers rise again, compounding the problem.
There is nothing that drives prison workers out in large numbers now. Some are leaving for new opportunities as more and more places are hiring. University of Michigan economist Betsey Stevenson pointed to the increased risk of COVID-19 for people working in prisons.
“As jobs become more risky, it becomes more difficult to attract workers,” she wrote in an email. “By failing to protect prisoners from COVID, the criminal justice system has not only created an unfair risk of serious illness and death for those incarcerated, but the increased risk of COVID for employees has undoubtedly contributed to shortages of personal.”
Unions representing correctional officers in states like Massachusetts and California and at the federal level also say vaccination mandates will chase away unvaccinated employees and exacerbate understaffing, though it’s unclear what impact these rules will have. will have.
“There are dozens of reasons to leave and very few to stay,” said Brian Dawe, national director of One Voice United, a nonprofit supporting prison officers. “Understaffed, poor pay, poor benefits, appalling working conditions. Officers and their families in many jurisdictions are fed up.”
Employers, from construction companies to restaurants, are struggling to hire and keep people. Nearly 3% of American workers, 4.3 million, quit their jobs in August, according to new data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the stakes are higher in prisons, where having fewer guards means far more dangerous conditions for those incarcerated. And for the officers left behind, worsening shortages have made an already difficult job unbearable, many say.
In Georgia, some prisons have a vacancy rate of up to 70%. In Nebraska, overtime has quadrupled since 2010 as fewer officers are forced to work longer hours. Florida temporarily closed three of more than 140 prisons due to staffing shortages, and vacancy rates there nearly doubled in the past year. And in federal prisons across the country, guards are picketing their facilities due to understaffing, while everyone from prison teachers to dentists are called in to cover security shifts. In recent weeks, reporters from the Marshall Project and The Associated Press have spoken with workers, officials, attorneys and incarcerated people in more than a dozen prison systems to understand the consequences of understaffing.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons says about 93% of its frontline guard positions are filled, with just over 1,000 vacancies, although workers at many prisons say they are feeling the pinch as more others are enlisted to replace missing agents.
Asked last week at a US Senate hearing on federal prison staffing, Attorney General Merrick Garland said, “I agree that this is a serious problem at the Office of Prisons. .”
Garland told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco was working with the office to resolve personnel issues.
Inside prisons, growing shortages mean increased lockdowns. Restrictions that might have started as a way to stop the spread of COVID-19 have continued as there are not enough guards to oversee activities. Some incarcerated people say they can’t take classes, participate in group therapy sessions, or even work out in the playground or take a shower. This may force members of the general population into de facto isolation, and those already in isolation into near total confinement.
“If we get recess once a week, that’s a good week,” said Anthony Haynes, who is on Texas death row in a barely staffed unit. “We don’t always have showers.”
A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice did not respond to Haynes’ claims, but acknowledged that staffing is a challenge in Texas prisons.
“Before COVID-19, staffing was frequently impacted by economic spurts and competing job opportunities,” spokesman Robert Hurst said in an email. “The pandemic has exacerbated these issues. We also recognize that the job of a correctional officer is one of the most difficult in all of state government.” He added that Texas has closed six of its more than 100 facilities in the past year due to staffing issues.
Kansas has reduced job training and reduced supervision of people after release. Two-thirds of men in Nebraska prisons cannot see visitors on weekends – when most families are free to travel – due to a lack of staff.
Dr. Homer Venters, a former chief medical officer for New York’s prison system, inspects conditions in prisons across the country for court cases. Shortage of staff will lead to an increase in preventable deaths in prison, he said, as the quality of care hits new lows.
“Things are much worse behind bars now than they have been in a long time,” Venters said. “So many staff have left. It means basic clinical services, like getting to scheduled appointments, just aren’t going the way they were five years ago.”


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