Kansas, New Mexico, and Florida are just a few of the many states facing a critical shortage of corrections officers. At best, the shortage is demoralizing for the officers — who end up working long hours for low pay—and for the prisoners, who lose recreation time and other programming. At worst, it’s dangerous.
A low-slung warehouse park on the south-side of Miami is not the most obvious place for a church, but it’s not exactly your typical church, either.
Ana Sainz is the director of a prison ministry that’s run out of this church; she and her ministry have turned the warehouse into a kind of makeshift sanctuary and office. (She also has a personal connection to prison, since her husband has been incarcerated for years.)
But most of their work is done in prison, not here. “Volunteers,” Sainz said, “we go every day. We travel 500 miles a week.”
They run worship services and Bible study sessions. But Sainz said at least once or twice a month, they show up and find the session has been cancelled, even when the volunteers have driven hours to get there. They’re not allowed to go into the prisons alone, and there aren’t enough officers to go with them.
“We’re out of luck [when that happens]” Sainz said. “We lost all the time. The volunteers, they take that day off just to go to the prisons.”
For the prisoners, it means a missed class or other activity, and for the officers, it means dealing with inmates who are bored and angry.
But the shortage can affect even more basic needs, creating delays for things like getting toilet paper or taking showers.
“Let’s use for example showers,” Les Cantrell said, who is with the Teamsters Union, which represents correctional officers in Florida. “It takes two officers to take an inmate down to the shower. If we’re at critical staffing, you have fewer officers, and it takes a longer period of time to do those basic duties.”
The Florida Department of Corrections, the state agency that oversees the prisons, agrees there’s a problem. In an email, the agency said the shortages have resulted in more violence, both between inmates and between inmates and officers.
Glenn Maynor spent 25 years locked up Florida, and he said the shortages often meant a delayed sick call.
“You have to fill out this paperwork and tell them that you got a sickness and that you want to be seen by a doctor or a nurse,” Maynor said. “You might not get an answer back for three to five days because there’s not enough officers to do all the paperwork, there’s not enough people.”
James Cook is a civil rights attorney in Florida, who litigates against the corrections department and its officers.
He said sometimes there’s only one officer supervising a whole dorm full of prisoners.
“The issue that sometimes arises,” Cook said, “is that a fight will break out, someone’s life will be at risk and the only thing the sergeant can do is to radio for backup, but that is minutes away and in the meantime, lives can be lost.”
He had a case like that a couple of years ago: in it, he alleged one inmate stabbed another inmate to death over a stolen radio. The prison was understaffed, so there was only one officer watching the dorm. He lost the case on a technicality.
Some critics of the system say the problem is not too few officers but too many prisoners. Others say the real problem is not the shortage, but simply a culture that tolerates violence and abuse.
Cantrell said most officers are just trying to do their jobs.
“People make mistakes when they’re overworked,” he said. “They might try to take a short cut, not to circumvent a policy, but to get the job done.”
He says that’s when bad things happen.
Alisa Roth is writing a book on mental illness and the criminal justice system.