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Can Improving Prison Safety Stem the Corrections Workforce Crisis?

A report from Chicago Beyond and a recent conference of the Correctional Leaders Association help us understand how to enhance conditions for staff and incarcerated people alike.

Image of male guard standing along the side of a jail cell.
(Image Source/ Getty Images)

Ronald Simpson-Bey is intimately acquainted with issues of prison safety. Before he became a leader in the criminal justice reform movement, he spent 27 years in Michigan state prison on a wrongful conviction that was overturned in 2012.

When you have a lack of programs and a lack of out-of-cell activity, when people are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day, after a certain period of time it creates stress, it creates anxiety,” Simpson-Bey says. People, especially people with undiagnosed mental health issues, are going to act out.”

Today, as the executive vice president of JustLeadershipUSA, Simpson-Bey is devoted to changing unjust and damaging practices in the United States prison system. Part of that work is ensuring that people with lived experience of the system have their voices heard about what will make life safer and more dignified behind bars. This includes both people who have been incarcerated and people who have worked in prison facilities. 

You need to have people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system at the table having these conversations,” Simpson-Bey says.

Do I Have the Right to Feel Safe?, a recent report from the organization Chicago Beyond, draws on the experience of formerly incarcerated leaders like Simpson-Bey, as well as veteran correctional officers, to detail the challenges to safety in jails and prisons. The report also outlines a vision to create conditions through which both incarcerated people and staff can feel protected, resilient, and whole.”

Everyone who comes into contact with the system is experiencing some kind of trauma,” says Nneka Jones Tapia, a psychologist who is the managing director of justice initiatives at Chicago Beyond and formerly served as warden of the Cook County Jail. There is not widespread acknowledgement of this fact.”

percent of correctional officers in security roles who meet the criteria for PTSD
approximate percent of incarcerated men who experience moderate to severe symptoms of PTSD

Correctional staff experience violence at a rate 36 times higher than all other American workers, and approximately 35% of incarcerated men reported being physically victimized in the previous six months while in prison. Many staff and incarcerated people also witness violence. Among correctional officers in security roles, 34% meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), five times the national rate, and approximately 60% of incarcerated men experience moderate to severe symptoms of PTSD. Both officers and incarcerated people have significantly reduced life expectancy.

Conditions like these have contributed to a downward spiral of despair, as dire workforce shortage in correctional facilities across the country leads to even less safe and more restrictive conditions inside. This was a key point made at a recent Correctional Leaders Association conference. The event brought together advocates, practitioners, and formerly incarcerated people to consider measures that will address the prison workforce crisis, and its effects, head-on.

Beyond us vs. them”

Chicago Beyond’s report brings fresh thinking to prison safety, undermining the entrenched us vs. them” mentality that has long dictated administrators’ efforts to control violence inside correctional facilities.

We have to think beyond barbed wire and cell blocks,” Tapia says. Physical safety is important, but we need to make sure that every person who comes into contact with this system has the tools and resources they need not just to be safe but to feel safe.”

Physical safety is important, but we need to make sure that every person who comes into contact with this system has the tools and resources they need not just to be safe but to feel safe.
Nneka Jones Tapia former Cook County Jail warden and managing director of justice initiatives at Chicago Beyond

To this end, Chicago Beyond spoke to more than 100 people across the country who have been impacted by the system, whether they were employed or incarcerated by that system, and distilled their observations into five key tenets of fundamental human need that, as Tapia explains, we oftentimes check at the gate of correctional institutions.” These tenets are value, health, connectedness, trust, and personal agency.

Value, for example, means investing in people’s shared humanity and individual strengths. In a correctional setting, that might include actions like administrators engaging with staff and asking their opinions or creating opportunities for incarcerated people to use skills such as educating peers. Trust refers to the earned belief in people’s ability to fulfill their responsibilities and behave in a way that’s beneficial to themselves and others. Trustworthy actions can include creating a system to record and respond to requests from staff, incarcerated people, and community members outside. 

In her time as warden of Cook County Jail, Tapia saw the benefits of implementing such policies. Staff often feel like they don’t add any value,” Tapia says. I’ve heard many correctional staff say, I’m just turning the key and locking the gate,’ and people today want to know that we are a part of something bigger than that.”

In July, Chicago Beyond launched its Holistic Safety Action Alliance (HSAA), a first-of-its-kind coalition with jails in Chicago and San Francisco that are working to reduce physical and emotional isolation for people working and confined within correctional walls. Guided by Chicago Beyond’s report, the HSAA brings together correctional administrators, people currently and formerly incarcerated, and current and former correctional staff to create programs that improve the safety and wellness of staff and incarcerated people, build on holistic safety policies, and inspire other institutions toward reform.

Why would you go into corrections?”

Correctional leaders hope that such targeted efforts to improve safety and wellness will lead to a more stable prison workforce.

Mike Thompson, a consultant for correctional departments across the country, says that staffing is the number one issue among correctional directors he works with. They are unanimous in saying that workforce issues — the shortage of officers, high vacancy rates, low morale, officer wellness — are their number one priority.”

Many correctional facilities are operating well below their staffing capacity, with officers working overtime and employees such as teachers or case managers serving shifts as officers — a situation that drains morale. Due to these shortages, some prisons have entered periods of rolling lockdowns,” during which the incarcerated population is confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours per day. These periods interrupt incarcerated people’s access to education, recreation, communication with family, mental health treatment, and other programming, taking a major toll on mental health outcomes and driving tensions with staff. 

In Texas, Bryan Collier, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, is struggling with many of these problems. The department has long had an issue with correctional officer vacancies, he says, but today a staggering 6,400 of its 24,000 total positions are unfilled. Collier attributes the shortage, in part, to the rigors of the job, especially as people return to the job market in a post-COVID-19 landscape. 

Corrections has never been an easy profession, and the stress of the environment can really take a toll,” he says. If you’re looking at your options to go back into the workforce, and if salaries and benefits are comparable, why would you go into corrections when you could do something less stressful?”

Despite leadership approving a pay hike of 15% across all staff in the system, the department has struggled to retain employees.

The biggest problem is figuring out a way to retain staff,” Thompson says. The solution is not just going to be paying better wages and attracting more people into the profession.”

We want to provide safe environments”

In June, the Correctional Leaders Association (CLA), along with Arnold Ventures (AV) and the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, convened a conference to discuss persistent staffing shortages across the country. Included at the conference were One Voice United, a group of current and former correctional union leaders and staff, as well as JustLeadershipUSA, whose formerly incarcerated members voiced their experiences inside.

Our goal is to improve the wellbeing of people who are incarcerated and employed in prisons, and a key component of our strategy is to transform prisons through targeted engagement with correctional leaders.
Carlton Miller director of criminal justice for Arnold Ventures

Our goal is to improve the wellbeing of people who are incarcerated and employed in prisons, and a key component of our strategy is to transform prisons through targeted engagement with correctional leaders,” says Carlton Miller, director of criminal justice at AV. The conference was an effort to support innovations that can help increase safety and address understaffing.”

Participants discussed steps that will help correctional leaders to begin addressing the crisis. Directors noted the need for greater data on their workforces so that they can identify subgroups of officers who leave the job and their concerns. Union representatives raised the importance of raising correctional pay rates to equal those of law enforcement professionals. Formerly incarcerated participants explained the dire consequences of workforce shortages, from lockdowns to programming cuts to adversarial relationships with officers. 

Pulling together correctional leaders, advocacy groups, and labor unions and getting in the same room allows us to acknowledge that we are all in this together and we want the same things,” says Kevin Kempf, executive director of CLA. We want to provide safe environments for staff and for those who are incarcerated.”

Representatives from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice attended, discussing new measures the department is taking toward better retention. Those include actions that Collier broadly refers to as culture change”: surveying employees about job satisfaction, modifying use-of-force policies to emphasize deescalation, using respectful language with incarcerated people, and implementing a program that will place body cameras on 11,000 officers.

Kempf also envisions other sweeping culture changes. 

We have to look at other innovative systems both in the United States and abroad and see what they’re doing,” he says. When you walk into a prison in Norway, that prison has color, it has artwork on the walls, the place smells like good coffee. The work environment for staff is outstanding, and the living environment for those who are incarcerated looks like a college dorm.”

Simpson-Bey says the conference left him hopeful. It was a rare opportunity for people with lived experience of the prison system to work alongside correctional administrators on solutions to the problems that have affected both of their lives. 

Prison reform is not going to be sustainable until you change people’s hearts and minds, so it’s a good idea to have these high-level conversations between people who run prisons and people who were in prisons,” Simpson-Bey says. The CLA conference was a perfect example, where we found out that we have way more in common than we have differences. People incarcerated, they want the same thing as people who work inside — they want to get home safe at the end of their stays, whole and unharmed, and return back to their families.”