Solutions to a National Problem: Correctional Officer Turnover in the U.S.

Catherine Kaufman, MPA Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

The death of high-profile financier and convicted sex offender Jeffery Epstein in a federal jail has brought increased attention to staffing problems within the U.S. prison system. Although current Attorney General William Barr believes the jail suffered from “serious irregularities,” the issues of understaffing and turnover among prison staff are not new. Indeed, between 2016 and 2018, the Bureau of Prisons lost 10 percent of its employees, while the number of federal prisoners only decreased by 5 percent. Understaffing isn’t just federal problem—many state prisons are facing shortages of guards as well, leading to poorly managed prison facilities, low retention, and hostile interactions between correctional officers (COs) and inmates.

Effects of CO Turnover

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, correctional officers have one of the highest rates of injury and illness of any occupation. COs are expected to be alert and ready to react for their entire shift, which often includes mandatory overtime with low pay. The excessive, prolonged stress and psychological exhaustion can cause burnout among COs, significantly affecting turnover intent and absenteeism. It can also lead to officers “feeling tense, stressed and fearful, and thus more liable to respond to negative conditions of confinement with violence and aggression.” Burnout-related apathy and fatigue can lead COs to mistreat the inmates for whom they are responsible. 

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In Ohio, an audit showed that staffing shortages and 80-hour workweeks led to a complete lack of ongoing training, causing officers’ inability to “make proper decisions.” A New York Times article in 2015 detailed countless complaints against guards by inmates in New York. However, these and other lawsuits involving inmate deaths and beatings often do not result in any job losses and are often dismissed entirely. States might be more likely to take action on complaints if there was not a shortage of COs, and perhaps these issues would not arise so frequently if guards were better trained and less overworked. 

Understaffing can also lead to increased violence from inmates. In 2017, inmates assaulted five guards and killed another in two rural prisons in North Carolina, where one-in-six CO positions were unfilled. Four inmates were strangled to death by other prisoners in a South Carolina maximum security prison in 2017, where two COs oversaw 140 inmates. Efforts to quell unmonitored violence has led some prisons to lock inmates in their rooms for extended periods of time because they do not have enough staff to maintain a safe facility. However, these long periods of lockdown in prisons across the country contributed to several inmate uprisings in 2017

Overworking COs also takes a considerable financial toll on the prison system. Individuals who experience burnout are more likely to take sick days or leave their jobs entirely, which costs the state a significant amount of money. Guards experiencing high levels of fatigue take twice the number of sick days as those with a normal level, doubling the cost of lost productivity. The overtime the remaining COs are required to pick up is expensive; in 2016, the overtime cost to three correctional facilities in West Virginia totaled more than $13 million. There are also costs associated with recruiting, testing, selecting, and training new staff that reinforce existing staffing issues.

Potential Solutions

Many states have made efforts to attract and retain more COs through a variety of methods. In 2016, New Mexico, Kansas, Nebraska, Michigan, Missouri, and West Virginia proposed pay increases or new training academies to incentivize applicants. Idaho, North Carolina, Texas, and Oklahoma made similar reforms in 2015. In 2019, Florida prison officials requested $90 million to deal with “exceptionally high turnover” in an attempt to bring COs’ workdays from 12 hours to 8 and increase salaries. Nebraska recently began offering $10,000 bonuses to attract new hires while switching to 12-hour shifts for existing officers, with an additional retention bonus for staff that stays into 2020. Even Pennsylvania, a state that is not particularly understaffed in this field, is trying strategies such as higher pay and increased CO access to counseling and mental health services to combat difficulty with staff retention. 

Some states have attempted to attract more COs by loosening their eligibility requirements and screening criterion. In 2017, Arizona decreased its time to hire (the average hiring timeline for government positions can be up to five times that of other sectors) by no longer checking candidate references, among other processes. Michigan, as of late 2018, allows COs to meet their 15-hour college credit requirements within the first 18 months of their employment instead of prior to being hired. In June 2019, Florida lowered the minimum age to be a correctional officer from 19 to 18 in an effort to attract more COs. These solutions should, at least in theory, work to attract more COs, though these initiatives are recent enough that it is difficult to say whether loosening these requirements could have a positive or negative impact.

Solutions can be challenging to implement. Pay increases for COs could lead to higher taxes or cuts in other programs, such as funding for public schools, both undoubtedly unpopular trade-offs. And these trade-offs don’t always work: in Nebraska, turnover increased to 34 percent despite higher pay and bonuses for COs. It is difficult for the prison system to compete in a growing economy with other employers that offer benefits such as pay increases for years of service, less risky environments, and a better sense of personal achievement. However, attempts must continue to be made to increase the attractiveness of the prison system as an employer if problems associated with understaffing and high turnover are to be corrected.

Why It Matters for COs and Inmates Alike

Correctional officers are a large part of what allows a prison to function—indeed, personnel is likely the most important part of maintaining appropriate conditions for inmates. The fact that the COs’ needs are not met creates staffing shortages, costing states money, and leading to unsafe and violent conditions. Policymakers must consider correctional officers in future budgeting and hiring practices if the system is to improve for any of the thousands of guards and inmates involved. 

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