U.S. prisons are experiencing staffing shortages as officers retire, quit and risks associated with COVID-19, the Associated Press reported on Monday.
Corrections officers are exposed to dangerous working conditions including exposure to COVID-19, and paid low wages, contributing to widespread staff shortages, according to the AP. At the same time, prisoner populations are starting to increase after dropping off at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would have liked to stay till I was 50,” said former Texas corrections officer Lance Lowry, 48, the AP reported. “But the pandemic changed that.”
Lowry served as a corrections officer for 20 years and quit for a truck driving job after losing superior support and seeing coworkers die of COVID-19, according to the AP.
Unions representing corrections officers said vaccine mandates will likely cause unvaccinated employees to quit and make the staffing shortage worse, the AP reported.
“There are dozens of reasons to leave and very few to stay,” said Brian Daw, national director of nonprofit One Voice United, according to the AP. “Understaffing, poor pay, poor benefits, horrendous working conditions. … Officers and their families in many jurisdictions have had enough.”
One corrections officer told Georgia lawmakers that on a “good day” there are six or seven officers for around 1,200 prisoners, the AP reported. The officer added that there aren’t enough medical workers and that he was recently assigned to oversee 400 prisoners by himself.
“All the officers … absolutely despise working there,” the officer said, according to the AP. He didn’t want to use his name out of fear of retaliation.
A shortage of corrections officers makes prisons less safe for everyone in them, including the inmates, according to the AP. Around 93% of the front-line guard positions are filled, though there are around 1,000 vacancies, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Some prisons in Georgia say their positions are 70% vacant, while three prisons have closed and vacancy rates have nearly doubled in Florida, according to the AP. Guards have protested understaffing at federal prisons as facility teachers and dentists are put on security shifts.
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