Staffing challenges plague almost every sector but the problem is even more compressed in correctional facilities.
A Route-Fifty article this week added even more compelling metrics to major staffing problems that local detention centers are experiencing across the country. According to the article, one county in Maine reported only 52 out of 128 corrections positions filled. Multiple officers have ended up working three to four doubles in a seven day period. For some this adds up to an almost 80-hour work week in a job that is difficult, both mentally and physically, as well as dangerous.
The issue is affecting inmate experiences as well. Less available employees has led to less services for inmates, resulting in higher incidence of assaults on correctional officers. According to the article, assaults on officers are running 60 percent higher than two years ago. The vacancy rates in some of these instances are close to a staggering 50 percent.
This compression of variables has created a cycle of burning out new hires before reaching a critical mass of employees to sustain normal operations. Even generational variables are coming into focus at a facility in Georgia:
In May, for example, the department hired 32 individuals who fall into the newest generation to enter the workforce (often dubbed Gen Z, and including individuals who are 24 and under.) During that month, the department lost more employees in that age range than it gained, however. “We hired 32 Gen Zs, and lost 33,” says Thomas.
The problem is not unique to Maryland and local governments around the nation have started throwing solutions at the wall to see what sticks. In Georgia they are broadening their recruitment pool to diversify the demographics, including recruiting recently immigrated community members. In Kansas and Colorado they are reinforcing wellness programs for officers. Technology investments are being made to upgrade software that can track and signal when employees are reaching a certain number of hours in a rolling seven day period.
Viability of these efforts is to be seen and some in the Route-Fifty article are hopeful. But it is important context to remember – detention centers are not looking for standard employees to work a 9a-5p job. These are a 24/7 operations and need to rely on a robust, talented staff to manage that schedule. The job requires strength and sensitivity. Inmates need a caregiver and a therapist as much as, if not more than, they need someone to hold them accountable.
Overtime dues and signing bonuses can’t make up for the stress these positions put on a person’s body and mind, even if they really like the job. And these are challenges arising for a job that has been widely reported for years to have an average life expectancy of 16 years less than the general population. The Vera Institute unpacks that research even more on their website. Not having enough people to make it work, let alone keep it safe, is dangerous and a policy problem that is not going away.