At a Georgia state House of Representatives hearing on prison conditions in September, a corrections officer called in to testify, interrupting his shift to tell lawmakers how dire conditions had become.
On a “good day,” he told lawmakers, he had maybe six or seven officers to supervise roughly 1,200 people. He said he had recently been assigned to look after 400 prisoners by himself. There weren’t enough nurses to provide medical care.
“All the officers … absolutely despise working there,” said the officer, who didn’t give his name for fear of retaliation.
In Texas, Lance Lowry quit after 20 years as a corrections officer to become a long-haul trucker because he couldn’t bear the job any longer.
Watching friends and coworkers die from COVID-19, along with dwindling support from his superiors, wore on him.
“I would have liked to stay till I was 50,” said Lowry, 48. “But the pandemic changed that.”
Staff shortages have long been a challenge for prison agencies, given the low pay and grueling nature of the work. But the coronavirus pandemic — and its impact on the labor market — has pushed many corrections systems into crisis. Officers are retiring and quitting in droves, while officials struggle to recruit new employees. And some prisons whose populations dropped during the pandemic have seen their numbers rise again, exacerbating the problem.
There is no one thing pushing prison employees out in high numbers now. Some are leaving for new opportunities as more places are hiring.
University of Michigan economist Betsey Stevenson pointed to the increased risk of COVID-19 for people working in prisons.
“When jobs become riskier, it becomes harder to attract workers,” she wrote in an email. “By failing to protect prisoners from COVID, the criminal justice system not only created an unfair risk of severe illness and death for the incarcerated, but the increased COVID risk to employees has undoubtedly contributed to staffing shortages.”
Unions representing prison officers in states including Massachusetts and California and at the federal level also claim vaccine mandates will drive out unvaccinated employees and exacerbate understaffing, though it’s unclear how big of an impact those rules will have.
“There are dozens of reasons to leave and very few to stay,” said Brian Dawe, national director of One Voice United, a nonprofit supporting corrections officers. “Understaffing, poor pay, poor benefits, horrendous working conditions. … Officers and their families in many jurisdictions have had enough.”
Employers from construction companies to restaurants are having difficulty hiring and keeping people. Nearly 3 percent of American workers, 4.3 million, quit their jobs in August, according to new data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the stakes are higher in prisons, where having fewer guards means significantly more dangerous conditions for incarcerated people. And for the officers left behind, worsening shortages have made an already difficult job unbearable, many say.
In Georgia, some prisons report up to 70 percent vacancy rates. In Nebraska, overtime hours have quadrupled since 2010, as fewer officers are forced to work longer hours. Florida has temporarily closed three prisons out of more than 140 because of understaffing, and vacancy rates have nearly doubled there in the last year. And at federal prisons across the country, guards are picketing in front of their facilities over understaffing, while everyone from prison teachers to dentists is pulled in to cover security shifts. In recent weeks, reporters from The Marshall Project and The Associated Press have spoken with workers, officials, attorneys and people incarcerated in more than a dozen prison systems to understand the consequences of the staffing shortfalls.
The federal Bureau of Prisons says about 93 percent of its front-line guard positions are filled, with little more than 1,000 vacancies, though workers in many prisons say they’re feeling the pinch as others are conscripted to fill in for missing officers.
Asked last week in a US Senate hearing about federal prison staffing, Attorney General Merrick Garland said, “I agree this is a serious problem at the Bureau of Prisons.”
Garland told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco was working with the bureau to address staffing issues.
Inside prisons, growing shortages mean a rise in lockdowns. Restrictions that might have begun as a way to stop the spread of COVID-19 have continued because there aren’t enough guards to supervise activities. Some incarcerated people say they can’t take classes, participate in group therapy sessions or even work out in the recreation yard or take a shower. That can force those in general population into de facto solitary confinement, and those already in segregation into near-total lockdown.
“If we get rec once a week, that’s a good week,” said Anthony Haynes, who is on Texas’ death row in a unit that is barely half-staffed. “We don’t always get showers.”
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice did not respond to Haynes’ claims but acknowledged that staffing is a challenge in Texas’ prisons.
“Before COVID-19, staffing was frequently impacted by economic surges and competing employment opportunities,” said spokesman Robert Hurst in an email. “The pandemic has exacerbated these issues. We also recognize that the job of the correctional officer is one of the most difficult in all of state government.” He added that Texas has closed six of its more than 100 facilities in the last year due to staffing problems.
Kansas has cut job training and reduced supervision for people after they’re released. Two-thirds of the men in Nebraska’s prisons can’t see visitors on the weekends — when most families are free to travel — because of understaffing.
Dr. Homer Venters, a former chief medical officer for the jail system in New York City, inspects conditions in prisons around the country for court cases. Understaffing will lead to an increase in preventable prison deaths, he said, as the quality of care reaches new lows.
“Things are much worse behind bars now than they have been for a long time,” Venters said. “There are so many staff that have left. That means that basic clinical services, like getting to scheduled appointments, just isn’t happening the way it was even five years ago.”