Prisons struggle with high attrition and burnout among staff

State prisons struggle with staff vacancy rates as high as 40%

By: - May 12, 2022 6:15 am
Prison guard

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For jails and prisons across the country, it can be a challenge to retain enough staff necessary to properly run a facility. And for the staff members who are on payroll, the burden can be immense, leading to a variety of negative mental and physical health outcomes. It’s a nationwide pattern from which the state of Wisconsin isn’t immune.

For most of the country, while prison populations have skyrocketed, the hiring and retention of staff has failed to keep up. Between 2000 and 2013, while the population of people incarcerated in federal prisons rose by 41%, increases in correctional staff lagged far behind, only rising by 19%. This is one of  many points raised in a recent report by Prison Policy Initiative, which examined the trends and driving forces behind the shortages in correctional facilities.

For African Americans, the rate of incarceration in Wisconsin is among  the highest in the nation. The 53206 Zip Code in Milwaukee remains the nation’s most incarcerated. As of May 5, the Department of Corrections (DOC) counted 19,939 people confined within its adult facilities, with another 108 in  youth facilities. Many of these facilities are holding more people than they were actually designed to contain. That includes three of the state’s five maximum security institutions, seven out of nine of the medium security facilities, and two of the four minimum security facilities.

The picture looks bleaker upon closer inspection. Wisconsin’s oldest prison, the Waupun Correctional Institution (WCI), holds 976 people despite being designed for 882. Nevertheless, the prison is also running a 40.2% vacancy rate for all staff, from security to health care workers, psychological services, social workers and other positions. The Columbia Correctional Institution is running a slightly higher overall staff vacancy rate at 41.%. However, the population of people incarcerated at that  facility is 516, below its capacity of 541. The Dodge Correctional Institution, with a 31.3% staff vacancy rate, holds nearly 1,400 people within its walls despite being designed for just 1,165.

The troubles trickle down into the medium security facilities as well. Such as the Racine Correctional Institution, designed for 1,171 but holding 1,518 people in custody. Meanwhile, the facility grapples with a 31.4% vacancy rate for staff, virtually mirroring that of the larger facility in Dodge County. Figures were similar for the troubled Lincoln Hills juvenile facility in Irma. Earlier this year, vacancy rates for several staff positions including teachers (at 44%) and social workers (57%). In some cases, facilities like local jails fill staffing gaps by outsourcing  jail operations to private contractors. This, however, can lead to its own problems with accountability and transparency, among other things.

John Beard, director of communications for the DOC, says high incarceration rates are the elephant in the room. “Our administration has been clear in our belief Wisconsin has, historically, locked up too many people for too long, at too high a cost and with too little to show for it in the way of results,” Beard tells Wisconsin Examiner. “The pandemic altered the trajectory of the state’s prison population and it has remained lower.” COVID-19 made a valid case for reducing the prison population and Gov. Tony Evers made efforts to address overcrowding and release nonviolent offenders. Activists pushing to lower the prison population, however, are not satisfied. Some have called for the closure of older facilities, like WCI and the prison in Green Bay.

Although these facilities are overcrowded and struggle to maintain staff, some are important to the local economies of communities. Particularly WCI, which is seen as part of the very history of the small town surrounding it. Last April as activists, elected officials, and DOC officials discussed whether the prison could be closed one day, the city’s mayor noted that the prison serves as a major employer for the area. Beard tells Wisconsin Examiner, “we have no immediate plans to close any facilities.” The closure of the Lincoln Hills youth prison is still ongoing, and may come at the cost of one of Milwaukee’s only adult re-entry facilities, which could be repurposed to serve as a replacement youth prison.

Turnover rates for correctional officers have held steady over the decades. Prison Policy Initiatives report notes that in 2000, the average turnover rate for correctional officers was 16%. Later in 2010, a report by the MTC Institute found that the average rate was 17% in 2006 and 2007, and 16% the following year. Correctional officers, as well as social workers and medical staff, face a variety of challenges in their working environment. Safety is often as prevalent a concern as being overworked.

A 2021 analysis referenced by the Prison Policy Initiatives report was conducted using thousands of anonymous surveys filled out by correctional officers in California prisons. According to the report, 48% of respondents reported feeling anxious, nervous or on edge over the last month. Some 80% felt tired or fatigued, even after sleeping, and 28% reported consuming six or more alcoholic drinks on at least one occasion. The report further noted that 28% felt down, depressed or hopeless, 11% had suicidal thoughts and 4% experienced repeated, disturbing memories.

Beard is unable to give exact numbers on the prevalence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among DOC staff. “I think tracking it might require asking staff for their personal health information, which would raise HIPAA concerns,” he says.  “However, we regularly remind our staff about mental health services available to them.”

Looking at the overview, Prison Policy Initiative emphasizes that correctional facilities are often toxic environments for those incarcerated within the facilities as well as for those staffing them. “Prisons bring trauma to communities,” Prison Policy Initiatives report states, “for the people locked up in them, of course, but for those employed there as well. There are other ways to create better, safer jobs for people in rural communities. In particular, states have the power to create different kinds of jobs — such as jobs in mental health services, youth programming, or health care — that simultaneously help others stay out of jail and prison in the first place.”


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.