Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Understaffed prisons in rural areas leading to fatigued guards and creating dangerous situations

Overcrowded and understaffed prisons—located disproportionately in rural areas—are leading to potentially hazardous environments in states such as Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Michigan, Missouri and West Virginia, Jen Fifield reports for Stateline. Officials say "understaffed prisons result in long hours, fatigue and stress for guards, and canceled recreational and social programs for inmates, such as family visits—all of which can lead to potentially dangerous situations."

A 2014 survey of correctional officers by the nonprofit Desert Waters Correctional Outreach found that 20 percent of the of 592 respondents from 44 states "had high levels of 'corrections fatigue,' feeling stressed and unsupported," Fifield writes. Caterina Spinaris, founder of the organization that studies officer well-being and trains officers on how to stay healthy and alert, said "guards experiencing a high level of fatigue take an average of 10 sick days a year," compared to five days for guards not experiencing fatigue. "In a prison system with 1,000 guards that pays an average wage of $15 an hour, the annual cost of lost productivity for those additional sick days would be $406,778, according to a calculator on the organization’s website." High levels of overtime also increase department budgets.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, which funds Stateline, conducted a survey in 2014 that found that 28 of the 34 states that responded said they expect "their state prison populations to grow by 2018, from 1 to 16 percent," Fifield writes. In New Mexico, for example, prisons are at 98 percent capacity, but in the two most understaffed prisons—where the starting pay is $13.65—half the jobs are open and most employees leave within three years, mainly because there is little chance of receiving a raise. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez in her January budget proposed raising funding for corrections by $12 million. Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel said most of the funds "would probably go to boosting starting salaries in corrections, but won’t help much with retention or with maintaining programs designed to deter recidivism and stem the growing inmate population."

One problem is that an improving economy is states like Kansas has job seekers bypassing $13.61 officer pay for higher paying jobs, Fifield writes. Kansas, where unemployment was at 4 percent in December, has seen the turnover rate for corrections officers increase from 20.8 percent in 2010 to 29.7 percent last year. Additionally, once a prison guard in Kansas gains experience they can earn more money by getting hired on at Leavenworth, a medium-security federal prison that offers higher wages.

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