Staffing concerns taking toll on Mo. prisons

A corrections officer union said staffing is so bad that some facilities are using non-correctional staff to work as COs

By Corrections1 Staff

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A corrections officer union said problems at Missouri prisons will get worse unless the state improves pay and benefits for COs.

Gary Gross, director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, said inmate tensions are growing across the state over restrictions that stem from staff shortages, the News Tribune reported. Currently, there are about 700 open starting-level corrections officer positions statewide.

"In some institutions, they're using non-correctional staff to work as corrections officers," Gross said.

The union’s concerns come in wake of the July 4 riot at the Tipton Correctional Center, where inmates broke windows and damaged walls, officials said. DOC spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said the inmates were upset over rules regulating things such as how many prisoners can congregate in one place.

In May, a riot occurred at the Crossroads Correctional Center after inmates refused to return to their housing units and threw food and other objects. Pojmann said the inmates were frustrated over restrictions on outside food and that recreation time was limited due to staff shortages.

While no officers were injured in either incident, Gross said understaffing is still a significant problem and that a number of COs are “working enormous amounts of overtime.” Gross added that the staff shortage became critical last year.

"The turnover rate exploded because people are not willing to commit to those type of overtime hours, and with the economy picking up, there are plenty of other jobs available," he said. "Prisons are not a desirable place to work. Lawsuits have been filed in the past, and more will be coming from prison staff."

Pojmann said the department is doing what it can to recruit and retain COs. She added that the staffing shortage is one small part of a complex situation statewide.

"About 32,000 people are incarcerated in Missouri state prisons at any one time, and we supervise 58,000 people on probation or parole," she said. "We also release 19,000-20,000 people every year, so in a given year, as many as 45,000-50,000 Missourians pass through our facilities. That's a lot of people, requiring a lot of staff. Many of the prisons are located in rural areas with a very small population of potential corrections employees."

Pojmann said the department launched several initiatives to help reduce recidivism and the prison population. Some of those initiatives include providing behavioral health treatment to people on supervision and arranging video job interviews for inmates with prospective employers.

But Gross isn’t convinced that the state is doing enough to address the staffing issues. 

"I know they're working on programs to release some of the prisoners to try and open some housing units and ease tensions, but I think they should be looking at it from the staff viewpoint — in other words, why aren't people wanting to work here?" Gross said.

Gross also said cuts in benefits and changes to health insurance and retirement have hurt recruitment for COs. He added that terminations also can be done at will.

"It's a $14-an-hour job, and a lot of the work out there now is $14-an-hour jobs," he said. "People won't do this work for that type of pay. The state has failed to keep up with pay scales."

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