Missouri ranks just behind Mississippi for the lowest-paid correctional officers in the country.
The average annual pay for a correctional officer in Missouri was $30,870 in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, well below the national average of $47,600. Even with a recent pay bump of $1,050 a year, the department is struggling to retain and attract correctional officers for the state’s 21 prisons.
Currently, there are nearly 770 correctional officer positions vacant in the state.
To deal with that shortage, the department plans to consolidate two state prisons, Crossroads Correctional Center and Western Missouri Correctional Center, both in Cameron, Missouri, as well as give prison employees another small increase in pay.
It’s a plan Gov. Mike Parson endorsed during his State of the State address last month.
“This decision is largely driven by our dedication to find efficiencies wherever we can in state government,” Parson said. “And this can be done while ensuring safety, improving security and delivering a much-needed pay raise, all being done with no layoffs."
The proposal would give all state government employees a 3 percent pay raise. But Department of Corrections employees would get an additional 1 percent increase for every two years they’re with the department.
(In the text the Bureau of Labor Statistics' data for average correctional officer salary is used. In the below graphs the median salary data from the BLS is used -- meaning the mid-point of all salaries.)
Parson has touted it as the biggest pay raise in the department’s history, yet it must first be approved by the General Assembly. Even if the plan moves forward, some former correctional officers are skeptical about whether it will really impact the prison staff shortage.
“There's just too many good jobs out in society right now where people aren't threatening to kill you,” said Bill Schmutz. “That aren't throwing bodily fluids on you and stuff like that. And the officers are leaving.”
After 34 years, Schmutz retired from the department last April as a deputy warden at the Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City. He’s also a member of the Missouri Corrections Officer Association, a union that represents officers.
When he first started, he said the norm was roughly 12 vacancies a month. Since then, the number has more than quadrupled, resulting in hours and hours of overtime that cost the DOC $25 million last year. And Schmutz said the increased overtime affects safety.
“In corrections, when you're getting burned out and overworked, you start making mistakes,” Schmutz said. “Complacency sets in. In the prisons, mistakes equals people getting hurt.”
Department spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said they’re putting more of an emphasis on training and good communication to prevent such mistakes.
“Safety is the number-one concern of the administrators currently in the department, which is why we've implemented all these other initiatives,” Pojmann said.
Filling vacancies is another way they’re working to ensure safety in its facilities, Pojmann said. She points to recruitment and retention efforts on social media, billboards, pay incentives for staff who successfully recruit new hires, as well as partnering with the National Guard to recruit military personnel because of their background.
But Schmutz said the department’s efforts to attract more officers led to lower hiring standards in recent years. The age requirement dropped from 21 to 19. That’s caused what he describes as animosity from veteran officers who believe the lack of experience has created more safety concerns.
“You can't bring 19-year-olds with little life experience, give them 4 to 6 weeks of training and now put them in charge of a housing unit of 115 criminals," Schmutz said.
William Vallier agrees. He spent 27 years as a chief custody major at Algoa. In addition to the low pay, Vallier believes the high vacancy rate and inexperienced staff have led to cracks within the daily functions of the system, making it easier for things like drugs to find their way into the prisons.
He said some of the younger officers have been persuaded by some inmates to befriend them, because they’re the “hip officer,” and as a result they take part in questionable activities to make an extra dollar on the side.
"’Hey, I'll give you $350 for every pack of cigarettes you can get in here,’” Vallier said a prisoner might say. “‘Every cell phone you can bring me, I'll give you $350, or I'll give you $500 for every quarter ounce of K2 I can get you to bring in here.’”
Pojmann, is well aware about such concerns. She said that’s one of the main reasons the DOC is proposing consolidating two prisons and pushed for a pay bump.
“We don't have the kind of balance that we would like to have,” she said, “where we have seasoned officers who are helping out new officers to get a feel for the job and get acclimated. So that has been a concern.”
Department Director Anne Precythe indicated a need to keep more seasoned employees during a live press conference via ABC 17 news, where she described the consolidation plan as a “win win.”
“We've got to reward our seasoned, loyal, dedicated staff,” she said. “I've got to have experience in the facilities who are helping to train the new employees, because we have so many vacancies in our correctional officer ranks and our lower-level entry points.”
But paying officers enough to keep them won’t be easy. Just across the border in Illinois, the average salary for a correctional officer was $56,070 annually in 2017, about $25,000 more than in Missouri.
“So a lot of times we train people up,” Schmutz said. “The good the cream of the crop a lot of times goes to other agencies — other state agencies, sheriffs departments, police departments, and they go across the border.”
It’s not unusual for law-enforcement agencies to attract correctional officers, according to Beth Huebner, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. She said correctional officers are traditionally underpaid.
“Often local policing agencies and their employees are paid much better than correctional officers,” Huebner said. “We just don't see a large movement to support correctional officers, because we don't see what they do.”
Yet, she said the public should be concerned about a shortage of correctional employees.
Without enough officers, prisons aren’t able to staff programs that teach inmates skills they’ll need when they’re released. Huebner said without those skills, they’re more likely to go back to prison.
While Gov. Parson also talked of the importance of both alternative sentencing and re-entry programs during his State of the State, the current plan does not include early release of inmates or any additional prison consolidations.
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