Our nation is facing widespread staff shortages across many industries. We’re aware of issues in hospitality as we arrive at our favorite restaurant to discover they’re short-staffed and it will take nearly an hour for our meal to be served. We see in the news that health care lacks necessary personnel as medical professionals are burnt out. Teachers are feeling it as well: undervalued and underpaid.
The world of criminal justice is no exception as a substantial staffing crisis wreaks havoc on our jails and prisons. And in this case, a staff shortage creates public safety concerns. To put it bluntly, the fewer staff you have, the less safe everyone is. Inmates. Correctional staff. Private citizens. All of us are at risk when the criminal justice system isn’t working properly.
To better the situation, we need to first understand why a staffing shortage in corrections exists and the negative impacts it triggers. Then, we can consider ways to improve the working environment to better recruit and retain officers.
Staff Shortages: A Crisis in Criminal Justice
The last three years have really taken their toll on the national job market. Just how bad is the situation in correctional facilities around the United States?
In November 2021, The Marshall Project reported that some Georgia facilities claimed a 70% vacancy rate. Florida closed three prisons due to short staffing, while Texas closed six. In Kansas, the state Department of Corrections secretary testified before the legislature, claiming 400 unfilled jobs for uniformed officers. In Nebraska, too few employees caused overtime hours to quadruple since 2010.
In 2022, the Texas correctional system disclosed that about 8,000 of their 24,000 positions were vacant, and Florida’s severe shortage rose to a 24% vacancy rate.
So far in 2023, Michigan has reported over 800 vacancies throughout the state’s thirty-one prisons while Nevada’s prison system faces a 23% vacancy rate in its southern facilities and 60% in its northern facilities.
The Office of Correctional Health, part of the American Correctional Association, published a 2023 document that discusses the critical challenges being faced in the area of staff recruitment and retention, projecting a 7% decline in correctional and bailiff staff between 2020-2030.
Staff Shortages: Why the Dilemma Exists
It is not a singular issue pushing corrections officers out of the job or keeping new recruits from even initiating a career in the field, but rather, a number of concerns that are causing the staffing crisis.
The last few years have been especially difficult in the field of public safety.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had damaging effects on correctional settings. Due to close quarters in prisons and jails, and the inability to quarantine or social distance appropriately, the rate of infection, and resulting death, was higher than the national average. As of March 2023, The Covid Prison Project claims that there have been nearly 3,000 inmate deaths due to Covid, and about 300 staff member deaths.
With this extra danger imposed on correctional officers on top of already difficult and dangerous working conditions, plus vaccine mandates, it is not surprising that many officers retired or resigned between 2020-2023.
Low recruitment then became an issue during this same period, in part because of Covid-19, but also, an intimidating political climate of protests, anti-law enforcement sentiment and a “defund the police movement.”
This creates a snowball effect in that stressful working conditions just get more stressful as the remaining officers are then left spread thin as they oversee more inmates, take on the responsibility of more duties and are also forced into overtime shifts.
Staff Shortages: Negative Implications
Short staffing leads to a host of issues, but the most significant is safety. The fewer staff you have in a correctional facility, the less safe everyone is. Fewer staff means less supervision and that leads to major problems.
In some correctional facilities, teachers or therapists are filling in shifts, acting as untrained supervisors of inmates in hallways or common areas. Even when trained guards are on duty, many are feeling the effects of fatigue and burn out from working overtime shifts, making them more negligent.
Due to staffing shortages, many recreational and educational programs are being postponed or canceled. Without enough officers to supervise, visitor opportunities and time spent in the yard are also limited. The result: a facility brewing with pent-up inmates.
And when these bored, disgruntled inmates recognize understaffed shifts, some will take advantage. They wait until there’s a lack of supervision to traffic contraband like weapons and drugs and to commit violence against fellow inmates and staff.
A 2019 investigation into Alabama’s state prisons found that serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision, plus overcrowding and the inability to control the flow of contraband, was to blame for the dangerous state of affairs that included in just one week: four stabbings (one that involved a death), three sexual assaults, several beatings and an inmate’s bed set on fire while he slept.
Consider Vaughn Correctional Center in Delaware, where in 2017, the inmates took over a building, holding one counselor and three officers hostage, one of whom was killed during the 18-hour stand-off. Again, an investigative report faults overcrowding and critical understaffing as the impetus, describing how privileges and programs had been eliminated, leaving prisoners with too much idle time. Lack of oversight also allowed prisoners to congregate and devise their plan.
A lack of programming and rehabilitation efforts, like at Vaughn Correctional Center, not only breeds misconduct but can also lead to an increase in inmate recidivism. If an inmate’s time is not spent preparing them to reenter society as a better citizen, then turning out repeat offenders is likely.
Improving Staffing Shortages
Across the nation, attempts are being made to retain more staff, including police officers, correctional officers, probation and parole officers and juvenile detention staff.
Many states have raised the salary and offered hiring bonuses.
Pew Charitable Trusts reports that the current average salary for a corrections officer in the United States is $48,193, based on education, skill level and experience, and the state in which they work.
Texas recently implemented a 15% pay increase, with an additional 3% bump for officers working in maximum security units. South Carolina also implemented a new pay and benefits package, along with a $7,500 signing bonus.
In addition to higher pay, some systems are reducing the minimum age of corrections officers. In Early 2023, a Massachusetts sheriff explained that offering a signing bonus just wasn’t doing enough to attract more officers, leading him to adjust the minimum age of corrections officers from 21 to 19. He also added a higher salary, signing bonus and eligibility for the state’s tuition reimbursement program.
A county in Rhode Island also lowered its minimum hiring age to 18, with a starting salary of $57,000 plus a $5,000 signing bonus, benefits including health insurance and a state pension. Additional incentives are offered for certain college degrees and prior military or first-responder experience.
Florida has done the same. And in 2022, Governor Ron DeSantis called in the National Guard to relieve some of the burden placed on correctional staff in the state’s facilities, asserting that the Guard could assist with manning guard stations and perimeter patrol, allowing certified correctional officers to tend to other, more specific duties.
Recruitment efforts continue as departments seek to find candidates through billboards, print media and an increased online presence, targeting specific audiences like military bases and workforce agencies. Texas has plans to open a new career center that allows applicants to be screened immediately, speeding up the hiring process.
While step one in righting the staffing crisis is clearly the recruitment of more officers, the next and crucial step is retaining them.
Better working conditions are necessary, where staff is enabled to complete their duties efficiently and safely.
In a study done by the Office of Justice Programs’ National Criminal Justice Reference Service, panelists propose the use of physiological data monitors, body-worn sensors, to track vital signs, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels. The panelists submit the idea that such sensors be worn by both inmates and staff members.
While staff members can track their own health indicators on a smart watch, let’s consider the use of similar technology for inmates.
Part of Talitrix’s Inside the Walls (ITW) jail management platform, wearable tamper-resistant bands called ITW Bands are a hybrid of a smartwatch and ankle bracelet monitor. When worn by inmates, ITW Bands provide real-time tracking and biometric data that allow staff to manage large populations and individuals with dignity, security, and a lot less time and stress.
Talitrix’s ITW Bands enable automated headcount at the press of a button, at any time. Manual headcounts are difficult and time-consuming as they halt everything as an officer makes his or her way from cell to cell, counting and possibly, naming each inmate. When short-staffed, this job might be rushed and discrepancies can occur as the officer unintentionally assumes the number counted matches the one he or she previously saw listed on the roster, and it’s possible for an inmate to be counted more than once or not at all. Using real-time tracking allows staff to be more efficient, avoiding human error and allowing for a random count at any given time or location.
Officers can’t be everywhere at once, and this is even more true as staff is stretched thin. When inmates wear the ITW Band, it’s like having a set of eyes on them at all times. And not just their location, but also their biometric data. The staff can get an alert if the biometrics change out of the normal range, allowing someone to attend to that inmate immediately. Heart rate notifications, for example, are configurable and can be determined by jail personnel. So if an inmate’s heart rate suddenly drops below 50 or spikes above 130, staff will be alerted. A biometric alert can save an inmate’s life, whether it’s a medical episode, a brawl, or a suicide attempt (the leading cause of death in correctional facilities).
ITW allows staff to visualize the inmate population by providing staff with a clear picture of every individual’s location, eliminating any camera blind spots. It’s the ultimate visual management solution that enables staff to monitor movement to avoid safety risks, like inmate-to-inmate contact or overcrowding in areas with less staff that could result in violence or contraband trafficking. Staff can analyze and use crucial data to decrease risk and liability.
A different band called the Talitrix T-Band is being used successfully as a house arrest monitor instead of the old-fashioned ankle bracelet and the same behavior data and predictive analytics can be used within our jail and prison system. Each individual maintains a Talitrix Score ranging 0-100, with 100 indicating perfect compliance. The score is calculated using an algorithm based on behaviors, where some violations lower the score more than others while positive actions raise it.
Better data and insight opens the doors to better decisions and outcomes. Officers can analyze inmates’ scores and track trends to adjust management activities accordingly.
Fulton County, Georgia is already leveraging this innovative technology to improve jail safety by combatting staffing shortages and protecting inmates. The Talitrix “Inside the Walls” platform is being used in two Fulton County jails—the North Annex with the full suite of services and the South Annex Facility, with a focus on biometric monitoring for sensitive populations.
If you’d like to see the Talitrix ITW Band and Talitrix Case Management applications in action, request a demonstration at Talitrix.com and a team member will contact you.
The Future of Corrections
As we envision the future of corrections, let’s focus on a better, safer environment for both inmates and staff.
For inmates, the use of data to guide policy and decisions, with a focus on reentry and a reduction in recidivism rates.
For staff, the tools to better manage their populations, utilizing modern technology to ease the stress of many day-to-day activities inside facilities, minimizing the effect of staff shortages, and thus helping with retention efforts.