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Roundtable: How corrections was challenged in 2022

Our experts address how short staffing, training cuts and a lack of stress management impact correctional officers and facility security


The stress of working short-staffed continues to have a significant impact on corrections.

Joel Bissell |

While all of public safety is struggling to recruit, the corrections profession may have been hit the hardest.

The headlines on Corrections1 this year made for scary reading:

It is no secret that understaffing leads to staff burnout, unsafe operations, high turnover, and ultimately an inefficient and ineffective facility. The fallout effects of short staffing are a constant theme in this roundup of the challenges corrections faced in 2022. We hope the strategies and solutions presented by our experts will be useful for correctional leaders as we head into the New Year.

Roundtable participants

  • Mike Cantrell, host of The Prison Officer Podcast, has been in corrections for over 28 years.
  • Lt. Gary Cornelius, retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center.
  • Jenna Curren, MS, is an assistant professor of criminal justice studies and a former Connecticut DOC lieutenant.
  • Craig Gottschalk is an assistant ombudsman for the Nebraska Ombudsman Office
  • Leandro “Leo” Perez, Jr. is a supervisor for the Hidalgo County (Texas) Community Supervision and Corrections Department.
  • Gary York worked as a senior prison inspector for 12 years.
  • Zohar Zaied is a background investigator assigned to the Corrections Division at the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office in Northern California.

The fallout from staff shortages: Safety, stress & training
In my view, the stress of working short-staffed continues to have a significant impact on corrections. Crime never takes a holiday; the offenders keep coming in. Many correctional facilities cannot staff the posts due to difficulty in hiring and retaining staff. This problem has impacted other areas, namely safety, stress management and training.

It is a given that the fewer staff you have inside a jail, prison, or juvenile center, the less safe the people are who live (inmates) there and work there (staff). And when inmates are poorly supervised and staff is spread thin, contraband is smuggled in or inmates escape.

With short staffing comes stress: officers are asked to work overtime or called in on their days off. Days off are precious – a time to recharge, refresh and take a break from the demands and arduous work of corrections. A correctional officer (CO) leaves work tired and needs a break, physically and mentally. However, supervisors may hold them over, or call them in. Fatigue results in many COs being less attentive, irritable, or complacent. If staff know the negative aspects of short staffing, you can bet the inmates will take advantage of that as well. They will wear staff down through manipulation. Some COs, who are tired, may have difficulty saying no and lack energy. Stress also takes a toll on loved ones – the “rock” that corrections professionals rely on to make it through one more day. We must do more to relieve the stress of staff and their significant others.

Besides stress and safety, training is impacted by short staffing. COs must retain certification; most jurisdictions have required training hours. The usual academy training venues are being canceled because corrections agencies cannot spare officers to attend because of short staffing. To meet this challenge, management must support online training, webinars and on-site classes.

— Gary Cornelius

Training equals retention
2022 has been the year for lack of training in many correctional agencies. Correctional centers and jails are undermanned and dealing with the “Great Resignation” as the media refers to the loss of staff in our workplaces.

Many agencies are looking at ways to better staff their shifts and housing units, and as usual staff training has been one of the first cuts made.

What many prison and jail administrators don’t realize is just how important good training is to their employees. It makes your employees feel more valued and ultimately will improve performance and morale.

A recent survey by TalentLMS on The State of Learning and Development gives an idea of just how important employees view training:

  • 76% of employees are more likely to stay with a company that offers continuous training. Did you read that? More than three-quarters of those surveyed are more likely to stay with a company that offers continuous training. Training equals retention; it matters to your employees.
  • 55% say they need additional training to perform better in their roles. Employees who have access to training feel more involved with their company or agency. They feel happier and are more motivated at work. Newer generations put much more emphasis on the value of their time. A company that will train them is a company they will invest their valuable time in.
  • 38% of employees say companies can make training more effective by aligning training with job responsibilities, updating training content more frequently, and making training more social. Investing time and money into an effective staff learning and development program can lead to higher employee retention. Even today’s remote workers express interest in developing their soft communication skills and seven out of 10 who got soft skills training say they have no plan to leave their employers.

Today’s staff need a more social workplace. Be creative with shorter, more focused training initiatives. Try online learning opportunities, short one-on-one or group mentoring sessions, or even short lunch-and-learn sessions. Lock the unit down, give your staff a break and motivate their minds with positive, relevant training. They will reward you by being more engaged, more productive and hopefully the next generation of leaders at your agency.

Despite the staffing difficulty you are facing, eliminating training is just a band-aid for today. A good training program is your best bet for retaining the employees you recruited, trained and invested in.

— Mike Cantrell

Officer wellness is not one size fits all
As we reflect back on another year as correctional professionals, I would say that one of the biggest challenges this field continues to face is officer wellness and that has direct implications on burnout and staff retention. Correctional institutions across the country struggle with implementing best practices for better supporting their staff so that the turnover rates decrease. It is no surprise that the prison environment, in general, is negative and so ensuring our staff are adequately cared for is a real challenge most leaders face in this field.

One way to tackle this issue is to ask officers what they need to avoid burnout. Many organizations have employee assistance programs, but offering service is simply not enough to avoid burnout. Simply asking an officer if they are OK and then telling them how great the state-paid employee assistance program is without ever actually using it is not good leadership. A one-size fits all approach to mental wellness is not what officers need, especially when that service is often reactive and not proactively discussed.

[Corrections1 resource: Correctional officer mental health: A call for change]

Administer a survey where officers can share their concerns and ideas on how to avoid burnout. Take this valuable data and conduct research on what other correctional institutions or law enforcement/first responder agencies are doing to enhance officer wellness.

Maybe instead of offering just an employee assistance program, you have an on-site certified therapist whom officers can schedule time with before, during or after a shift. Maybe it is time to recruit for a new K9 handler position or positions and instead of using them to sniff out contraband, this officer and K9 are trained in officer wellness. They can travel to facilities on a rotational basis and be part of incident debriefs or just visit with officers and staff. Happy, de-stressed officers will make better decisions and most importantly will not quit, which will positively impact retention efforts by the department.

— Jenna Curren, Ed.D.

Inmate assaults on correctional staff
Correctional agencies must issue inmate assaults on correctional staff advisories whenever a correctional officer is attacked in the line of duty. All assaults on staff must be reported and investigated. Disciplinary action must be imposed in accordance with policy, as well as criminal charges when warranted.

In my opinion, inmate assaults on staff are increasing in frequency and becoming more violent. From October 5 to October 11, 2022, the Florida DOC Inmate Assault on Staff Advisory Report indicates 18 assaults by inmates on staff, which is up by 10 from the same time period report in 2021. From November 2 to November 8, 2022, the report indicates 22 assaults by inmates on staff, which is up by 14 from the same time period in 2021. These types of reports should be public record in all states for anyone to study and draw their own conclusions.

Are we doing enough for our frontline officers’ safety? This is the question administrators and supervisors must ask themselves. Violence against uniformed officers in our prisons and jails is steadily on the rise and needs our attention now more than ever.

Prison administrators and frontline supervisors must pay attention to the following areas and use this information to find ways of increasing officer safety. If there is a sudden increase in attacks on officers, begin to investigate and find out why. Areas of concern to look into include:

  1. Increase in gang violence on the compound.
  2. Which shift are most of the assaults occurring on and why?
  3. Are disciplinary measures being used appropriately and when needed?
  4. What is the current condition of the jail or prison?
  5. Are staff and supervisors trained in this area and is it up to date?
  6. Are officers being held back in any way from doing their job correctly and making decisions on running their pods or dorms?
  7. Are the inmates classified correctly?
  8. Are random searches to maintain control being conducted?

There are some things management cannot always control and that can also increase the risk of an inmate assault on staff:

  • Staff shortages and overworked personnel
  • Overcrowding
  • Political climate (yes, it does play a part in inmate behavior)
  • Generation gaps
  • Officer complacency
  • Corruption (The few bad apples)
  • Inmate manipulation
  • Lack of criminal charges on inmates that have attacked an officer

— Gary York
Inmate mental health care
Corrections may have had a stop-and-catch-your-breath year – following 2 years of COVID-related turmoil – but that does not mean the year wasn’t full of hiccups and major challenges.

In 2022, the identification, treatment and care for the mental health of this country’s corrections populations was HUGE. Depending on location, medical and mental health providers indicate that between 40% to 60% of the corrections population have underlying mental health conditions/needs that require addressing while in the walls of state prisons, county/local jails and other holding facilities.

To properly identify those challenges when initially booking or screening new arrivals into any facility is critical. Without knowing there is a condition or illness present, inmates are at a high threat of victimization and challenge to their health and safety. Ensuring each booking officer or intake staff has the proper tools to screen inmates, the training to identify inherent challenges and behaviors indicating individuals in crisis, and an intrinsic inquisitive and empathetic approach to discussing and listening for inmate clues to their mental well-being are crucial. Identifying that officer that exhibits the trifecta of skills can determine the success or failure of any inmate’s treatment and care in your facility.

[Corrections1 resource: 3 steps to mental health screening success]

Once identified – having the diagnostic and therapeutic expertise available in a jail or prison will dictate the behavioral and security impacts that inmates will initiate and experience in any corrections facility. While driving an inmate’s actions or reactions to the life inside the wall – the inmate’s mental health condition(s) and their proper treatment and care, or not – creates a continual daily tug of war that drives that inmate’s behavior. The theory and hope are that proper treatment and care will make that daily tug of war a slow and gradual transition to gently changing slopes and valleys of inmate emotions and behaviors and avoid the mountainous climbs and precipitous canyon cliffs of inmate crisis and outbursts.

Every facility must explore deeply the commitment they make to ensure proper mental health care for inmates. Failure to meet those needs is not an option.

— Craig Gottschalk

The bottom line: Salaries count
Like any good investment, strong officer salaries can have amazing effects on a department. Community Supervision Departments provide a service to the community like no other because they are in the business of rehabilitating criminals. I will be the first to tell you, that service can only be provided by quality hard working officers, with the drive to achieve what others think is impossible, the rehabilitation of someone in need. Even if state and local departments do not want to hear it, salary levels are still a crucial element when it comes to attracting and retaining the best people for the job. Quite simply, some community corrections departments that do not offer competitive salaries put themselves out of consideration when it comes to locating qualified candidates for the positions.

What is a competitive salary? A competitive salary refers to the benefits package an employee receives at the standard market rates. This amount can vary according to various factors including salary caps and promotion availability. However, in the world of community corrections, the supply of applicants is low, and the demand for the job is high. In addition, this is all due to the low salary levels in some areas.

What determines a competitive salary? It is important to regularly compare salaries against the other jobs that are available in your area, for instance, if the local school district is paying the average school teacher $55,000 a year with a college degree, and the local community corrections department is paying $40,000 a year for a community supervision officer, it is fair to say that the pool of applicants in your area will be low. You need to make the salary competitive in an effort to attract applicants. This includes monitoring industry trends, such as the housing markets. If the average home in your area is selling for $300,000 and your starting salary is $38,000 a year, the average officer is not able to make a mortgage payment. If industry trends are monitored it will allow a department to outline what the fair market value for a profession is.

The approach from another view: Let us approach the issue from a positive angle, a competitive salary encourages officers to do their best for the department, promotes loyalty and increases retention. Having a proper salary scale in place shows a department’s commitment to taking care of its officers. In addition, when an officer is cared for, an officer will look at their employment not as a job, but as a career where time is not a concern, but an advantage to their financial well-being.

Even if your top officers love what they do, salaries play a major role in an officer’s personal life. If an officer is provided with a competitive salary, a simple relocation can seem appealing and well worth the move. Salaries make mortgages, and mortgages make 20-year commitments. If you pay your officers, your officers will stay, and will do their best, and that is the bottom line.

— Leo Perez

The last mile: 2022 was difficult for those who survived the prior two years in corrections
Since early 2020, the corrections profession has experienced a cluster of challenges with specific long-term effects on staffing. Jails and prisons across the nation suffered extra exposure and safety measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, increased staff exposure to deadly fentanyl and other controlled substances, and a steady stream of overtime to make up for reduced staffing. We likely have the most resilient bunch of senior staff members in corrections today. They survived a difficult period while others in the profession moved on to other agencies, retired, or left the profession. It has been a marathon, however, and the resilient loyal are also tired.

With a population slowly returning to work during unsteady financial times, corrections is starting to see more applicants. With the national sentiment toward law enforcement improving and significantly fewer calls for defunding police in 2022 over 2020, we are slowly seeing the workforce feel safer applying for sworn positions.

While this will soon increase staffing in corrections, a quiet challenge faced by agencies in 2022 was helping staff finish the marathon. One challenge for command staff over this year was addressing working conditions in facilities as new staff trickled in and old staff needed hope to keep pushing for the finish line. Meanwhile, agencies face uncertain budgets and continued short-staffing that will not be addressed until new hires make it through training. It is normal to lose a more senior staff member while a new member starts training.

As we move into 2023, the more policy adjustments we can make in favor of better working conditions, the greater likelihood that resilient survivors in corrections will continue to finish the race to better times. The FTO program can shorten training periods with a focus on certain positions only, such as housing. Get our staffing numbers up for less overtime, then backtrack and slowly train new staff in other areas.

Ask your staff what they need to make their lives better at work. Expect reasonable requests and try to make them happen. If shifts can be started earlier, or later and staff feels this would give them more time with family, make it happen if you can. If staff prefer voluntary overtime sign-ups and you have been scheduling mandatory OT, see if a different system works better for them. You may be pleasantly surprised, or the change may cause problems. Either way, you have included line staff in attempts to improve work conditions. Ultimately, the clearer you can make the finish line, the more likely staff will stick around for improved conditions.

— Zohar Zaied