Connecting state and local government leaders
State and local governments are working to attract and retain corrections workers. But it’s not easy, and the task is complicated by high burnout rates due to understaffing.
Sheriff Kandy Fatheree in Summit County, Ohio, is never without her business cards. She hands them out in the grocery store, in restaurants, at the hairdresser and the nail salon. “I give them out to everybody,” she says, explaining that recruiting to fill both sheriff deputy and civilian positions in her 550-inmate jail is always on her mind.
Throughout the U.S., state and local officials, like Fatheree, are intent on dealing with the shortage of staff in their prisons and jails. Summit County’s jail—currently filled to capacity—has 200 budgeted positions for correctional officers. But it only has 120 filled. Summit also has difficulty hiring and retaining other positions including finance workers, commissary staff and clerks.
In the Georgia Department of Corrections, the job vacancy rate at its 54 facilities is currently about 45%—“almost half of where we should be at,” says Betsy Thomas, the human resources director there. In Cumberland County, the largest of Maine’s 16 counties, 52 out of the 128 budgeted positions for corrections officers are filled. “We’re all struggling in corrections,” says Kevin Joyce, the county sheriff.
Struggling with Turnover
Understaffing has obvious consequences for both inmates and corrections officers.
For officers, too much overtime may result in short tempers and fatigue. In Cumberland County, Joyce says his corrections officers sometimes need to work three or four 16-hour work shifts a week. “And that has a toll on sharpness while they’re working and on their families.”
For inmates, a shortage of staff lessens inmate-officer rapport and cuts down on activity. In Summit County, for example, the lack of staff means that inmates need to spend more time in their cells. “They’re in lockup more,” says Fatheree, “which causes a higher incidence of assault—currently assault on deputies is running about 60% higher than two years ago, while inmate on inmate violence has gone up about 14%.”
All of this leads to high turnover among officers, which makes solving an understaffing problem even more difficult.
In the Georgia Department of Corrections, the turnover rate for fiscal year 2023 is estimated at 40% compared to pre-COVID rates of about 25%. Turnover is most severe in the first six months of employment. 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.
As with public sector workplaces in general, retirements have accelerated, increasing turnover further. “We used to see people hitting retirement age and then staying a few more years. We’re not seeing that now,” says Joyce. “When they hit the magic date, they’re done.”
Finding a Solution
Traditionally, the lack of corrections officers from diverse backgrounds has lessened the pool of potential employees and robbed jails and prisons of staff that may be better able to relate to inmates from a variety of cultures.
As one of three female sheriffs in Ohio’s 89 counties, Fatheree, has been targeting women, people of color and immigrants. In the last year, she has welcomed new jail employees—both correctional officers and support staff—from Nepal, Bhutan, Romania, Russia and the Republic of the Congo. And recently, she hired the first Sikh to work in the Summit County jail, removing a requirement that corrections officers wear Stetsons. The cowboy hat wouldn’t fit over his turban.
Fatheree has also changed rules to allow tattoos—as long as they’re not on the face or neck—and beards. ‘Young women like their tattoos and young men like their beards,” she says. “I had to change my personal beliefs and go with what was best for the organization.”
There are also multiple ongoing efforts to make the job itself more attractive, with greater emphasis on professional development, and efforts to pay attention to personal needs, work-life balance and family life. For example, one small county recently began landscaping the area outside its jail with barbecue grills and playground equipment to encourage visits from employee spouses and children during work breaks.
Many jails and prisons are now providing fiscal assistance for tuition, paying for correction academy training and equipment, and providing help for employees with wellness and mental health issues.
Dealing with the stress of working in jails and prisons is critical to retaining employees. Studies point to a higher rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among corrections workers than in the general population, as well as high suicide rates, which have sparked research on programs to address emotional needs of employees.
One of the problems in the past, as in other law enforcement jobs, has been in getting corrections workers to seek help if they’re feeling stressed or emotionally vulnerable. Mary Guy, professor at the University of Colorado Denver, who has long been concerned with the emotional needs of public sector workers, notes that in male-dominated corrections jobs, there has often been resistance to seeking help.
There is a concerted effort to change these attitudes.
In Sedgwick County, Kansas, Sheriff Jeffrey Easter points to the start of a health and wellness program, which offers peer support and has used American Rescue Plan Act dollars to hire an in-house therapist. The Cumberland County in Maine jail also uses peer counselors and has recently offered its staff an annual voluntary check in with a mental health provider. “Twenty years ago, if you were having an issue, people would expect you to suck it up and move along,” Joyce says. “People are still apprehensive about pouring their heart out, but there is improvement.”
Georgia is actively dealing with the problem of workplace fatigue, based on a workforce management solution, and supporting research from the private company, UKG. After a two-year pilot, all its corrections facilities have access to dashboards that help wardens and detention superintendents keep watch on the shift length, days off and length of time that each individual employee takes between shifts.
“You have a clearer picture of what’s going on with the staff members and the hours worked,” says one warden at an 862-bed Georgia prison. “The dashboard gives a better insight of what’s going on with your staff members instead of finding out on the tail-end when somebody has worked a long shift. We want to be proactive.”
There are multiple other initiatives to address understaffing and its related problems. These include efforts at providing daycare for night-shift employees, recent increases to compensation, and various experiments with referral, retention and hiring bonuses. Both sheriffs and human resources officers also talk about the necessity of doing a better job of branding their operations and erasing the negative public perception that is attached to both jails and prisons, which tend to only get attention when bad things happen.
The aim is to better market the profession both to the public and to a much broader spectrum of potential employees. “Someone with a degree in sociology could be a great corrections officer,” says Joyce. “In my mind, it’s always been about helping people.”
It’s too early to see how well these solutions are working, but there’s reason for optimism. “It depends on when you ask me. At some points I feel good and a week later not so good,” Joyce says. “We want to get to the point where a young person says, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a corrections officer.’”