Today's Paper Digital FAQ Obits River Valley Democrat-Gazette Newsletters 🎄Community Christmas Card NWA Screening Sites NWA Vaccine Information Virus Interactive Map Coronavirus FAQ Crime Razorback Sports Today's Photos Puzzles

Prison officer shortage national; unfilled positions exceed 500 in Arkansas

by John Moritz | January 15, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Fielding questions from lawmakers last week about the state's struggles to find and retain corrections officers, prisons Director Wendy Kelley responded with a simple defense: Arkansas isn't the only state with a problem.

The number of unfilled corrections officer positions at the Department of Correction has grown to more than 500, more than a tenth of the total prison workforce. The vacancies are most pronounced at several maximum security units, including Varner, the home of the state's death row.

At the same time, the department has responded to more frequent outbreaks of assaults and violence, though Kelley has maintained that under-staffing was often not the root cause of those incidents.

But those issues are hardly unique to Arkansas, Kelley told lawmakers Wednesday. She pointed to the case of West Virginia, where the governor in December declared a state of emergency that allowed him to mobilize that state's National Guard to man overcrowded and understaffed prisons. (A spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the governor had no plans to utilize the Arkansas National Guard in prisons.)

Reports from local news outlets also describe legislatures in Nebraska, Kansas and Alabama debating what to do to attract workers to their prisons.

"Largely it has to do with, when the economy is good, then people can find a job where they don't have to work with a [prison] population," Kelley told lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee last week.

"It's not just Arkansas. Nationwide, prison systems are having a hard time filling their positions."

At the end of the Wednesday meeting, the committee voted to adopt a proposed spending plan that includes an increase of $1.9 million in overtime pay for officers manning extra shifts to keep the prisons staffed.

Other expenditures previously proposed by Kelley, including money for holiday pay and hiring a statewide prosecutor to handle crimes committed in prison, were not included in the department's appropriation and are under discussion for the 2019 regular legislative session, according to a spokesman.

The Legislature will give final approval to appropriations for state agencies during the fiscal session starting Feb. 12.

A look at prison systems in nearby states lends some support to Kelley's assessment. In Tennessee and Texas, among states that responded to requests for statistics from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, vacancy rates for corrections officers ran above 10 percent.

In Mississippi, nearly a third of positions were vacant, while M̶i̶s̶s̶o̶u̶r̶i̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶* Louisiana b̶o̶t̶h̶ had a vacancy r̶a̶t̶e̶s̶ rate below 10 percent.

Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Correction, the largest state prison system in the country, echoed what Kelley said about finding prison guards in a good economy with low unemployment.

He also brought up a point often raised by Arkansas corrections officials: Prisons in both states are often located away from urban areas and their larger work forces.

"People go and look for more competitive pay," he said.

Texas last boosted pay for corrections officers in 2015, Clark said, but the state's beginning salary for guards is still slightly higher than the $2,420-a-month entry level officers earn in Arkansas. Arkansas guards received a raise under a new statewide pay plan last year.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Arkansas ranked in the bottom quarter of states in pay for correctional officers and jailers -- meaning the number included local employees -- along with mostly other Southern states.

The highest paying states for corrections officers -- New Jersey, California, Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut -- all had nearly double the mean salaries, or more.

Hoping to attract workers to three of the state's most chronically understaffed prisons, the Arkansas Department of Correction received permission to increase hazardous duty pay for officers stationed there.

The pay increases helped attract recruits, Kelley said last week, but many have already quit as violence in the prisons continued.

In most states, paying officers' salaries, benefits and overtime makes up the largest portion of prison spending, according to a 2017 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, a research nonprofit based in New York City.

The report, "The Price of Prisons," found that Arkansas was one of 15 states between 2010 and 2015 where spending on prisons increased as more people were locked up.

Another 13 states saw spending decrease and fewer people being locked up. But the report found that prison costs were not simply a matter of spending more money on more inmates. Some states lowered costs by crowding more inmates per employee; other states locked up fewer people, only to have other costs, such as medical expenses, rise.

Lowering costs by cutting services or supervision could raise other troubles for prison, including reduced safety and having to defend against lawsuits.

"If you don't have sufficient staff, that's a constitutional violation. ... If you have overcrowding, that's a constitutional violation," said Holly Dickson, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas.

Nationally, the number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons has declined in recent years, as more states and the federal government pass laws diverting low-level and non-violent offenders from prison.

Southern states like Arkansas, however, continue to lead the nation in incarceration rates. Arkansas has 591 people locked up per 100,000 state population, ranking it sixth in the nation, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Three of the top five -- Louisiana, Oklahoma and Mississippi -- are neighbors. Four of the five states with the lowest incarceration rates are in New England.

"The safest way to reduce that spending, and the costs of prison and jails, is to send a smaller number of people to prison," said Chris Mai, a researcher and co-author of the Vera Institute report.

Mai pointed to three states -- New York, New Jersey and South Carolina -- that have enacted criminal justice reforms with the intention of reducing prison populations.

Each of the states that decreased both spending and the number of people in prisons also saw lower crime rates, she said.

Arkansas has also undertaken reforms in the face of its overcrowded prisons. Last year, legislation was passed with the intention of sending more parole and probation violators to treatment-based lock-ups, rather than prison.

The result of that legislation, which went into effect in October, has yet to be fully seen.

In mid-December, 254 people, parolees and probationers, had gone into the treatment centers, and eight had been released.

Arkansas prisons were recommended for a $430.4 million appropriation in the fiscal year beginning July 1, more than in each of the previous two years.

The state spent $399.4 million on prisons in fiscal 2017 and is budgeted to spend $414.7 million this fiscal year. Fiscal years start July 1.

On any given day, the state's prisons house about 16,000 inmates.

SundayMonday on 01/15/2018

*CORRECTION: The Missouri Department of Correction has about 600 vacancies out of about 5,000 total custody staff positions, for a vacancy rate of 12 percent. Total agency staff numbers supplied by Missouri, rather than just prison guard numbers, were included in a graphic and a previous version of this article.

Print Headline: Prison officer shortage national


Sponsor Content