COLUMBIA, S.C. — Recruiting and retaining prison workers is a growing issue for the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 10% drop in prison staffing in the next 10 years.
One state is leading the way to help close the gap in the shortage of correction officers.
“We were in bad shape just like everyone else; it’s a national problem," said Bryan Stirling, the South Carolina Department of Corrections director. “The unique challenge corrections have is the environment they have to work in.”
There is a growing crisis in our correction facilities. The lack of correctional officers is hurting facilities all over the country, even on the federal level.
The Justice Department budgeted for nearly 21,000 full-time officers in 2020 but only had nearly 14,000 of those positions filled in 2021.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts there will be about 33,000 officer openings on average each year for the next 10 years.
“If you don’t have the core function of safety, you can’t reach the basic needs these folks have without staff,” Stirling said. “So, we have to do things differently. So, what does that mean? More aggressive recruiting, more aggressive pay scale."
In South Carolina, the state is trying to fix staffing issues, because those who work here know this job is can be demanding. Each officer is responsible for the safety of the public, the inmates, and their fellow officers. Staffing shortages make this job that much harder. That is why South Carolina has taken several different approaches to try and fix this.
“It could be a tough job, but any job can be a tough job,” said Lt. Genice Cole, with retention at Broad River Institute in SCDC. “We have increased the training to feel more comfortable and feel more welcome. It was previously four weeks. With it being eight weeks, we give them the opportunity to be inside in the housing units with staff that are certified to give them a little more comfort.”
“I have been doing this for three months,” said Alex Hassam, a recruit for SCDC. “Honestly, training has been fantastic. Communication has been good. There’s a lot of people to walk you through things to help you gain confidence. You’re never truly alone and always having somebody who has your back that is very nearby.”
South Carolina recently increased pay for their officers. According to Stirling, an officer can make more than $50,000 in their first year. The BLS reported the pre-pandemic starting salary average was around $32,000 a year.
“We have more aggressive recruiting, and a more aggressive pay scale. We just had a historic pay raise here in South Carolina; other states are doing pay raises as well. Other departments that hire are union based, and you can be close to six figures starting off. We are up 150 officers this year just in six months due to the raises given through the legislature.”
South Carolina has also lowered the age minimum to be a correctional officer to 18, which Stirling said has helped fill vacancies.
“We’re going to pair them with experienced officers, with someone that’s older inside the prison. We’re not going to just put them in a dorm by themselves,” Stirling said.
This staffing shortage issue is expected to grow, but South Carolina hopes other states can learn from each other and implement the best tactic for their situation.