When you hear “law enforcement” what do you picture? A police officer, a sheriff’s deputy, maybe a highway patrol trooper--but probably not a prison guard. That is a problem for Wyoming’s Department of Corrections recruiting division. Right now they’re 20 percent short of guards system wide. A lot of that shortage is due to recent growth in high paying energy jobs, but Corrections has struggled for many years with recruitment and retention, in Wyoming and across the country.
It’s restraints training practice at Wyoming’s Department of Corrections Training Academy, and cadets are trying out the handcuffs they’ll use to move inmates in and out of state prisons. In a few weeks this will be very real, but for now the atmosphere is relaxed.
These cadets are in high demand. There’s twenty-three in this class, but there would need to be six times as many to fill all the open Corrections positions in the state. New recruit Carlos Galan says he ended up here by chance, after his contract as a food service manager in Nebraska dried up. “I was out of a job,” he said. “I had to start looking around for work. I had to get out of my comfort zone.”
Galan did always want to work in law enforcement. He grew up in Southern California, and in the backseat during his parent’s commute he day dreamed about the Highway Patrol Training Academy as they drove past. He would grow up and become a trooper, or maybe a police officer. But a Corrections Officer? “That never crossed my mind,” he said.
Thats the problem that Corrections faces. The job starts at around $33,000, has good benefits, doesn’t require a college degree, and comes with a twenty year retirement with a pension. But Academy Instructor Lt. Aaron Blair, an instructor at the academy, says most of his cadets still don’t see it as a career. He says part of that is because working in a prison can be tiring in a way few other jobs can. “Law enforcement on the street get[s] far more interaction with the good part of society,” he said. “Whereas we know that every day we are dealing with convicted felons. It can be kind of dark.”
Blair says Corrections Officers do far more than babysit inmates these days. Cadets here will learn de-escalation tactics and a conversation technique called verbal judo along with restraint training. But he says when potential recruits picture the job they still see the infamous prison guard villain from the movie Cool Hand Luke. “The guy with the sunglasses, holding the shotgun. A knuckle dragger I guess.”
Blair says a big raise would help make Corrections more competitive with other law enforcement jobs. Some states are offering bonuses to sweeten the deal, but those aren’t in the cards for Wyoming. For now the Department of Corrections says its making due with voluntary overtime to fill the gaps. Lt. Blair and other Corrections officials say they aren’t losing anything by running short. But others in the Corrections industry say that these kinds of issues necessarily have an effect.
Leann Bertsch is the President of the Association of State Correctional Administrators. She says relying on overtime, whether its mandatory or just voluntary like in Wyoming, can burn officers out and put them at risk. And high turnover rates can make for an inexperienced staff. Bertsch says, nationwide, pay raises would do lot to deal with shortages, but she says state legislators often prioritize law enforcement thats closer to home. “People don’t get to see the day to day work of a correctional officer,” she said. “They are behind the walls, behind the fences. And often the policy makers who set compensation for correctional officers don’t appreciate the difficult nature of their jobs.”
David Fathi agrees that Correctional jobs should be treated with the same importance as any other in law enforcement. Agreeing with the Correctional industry on anything is a little strange for him--he’s the president of the ACLU’s Prison Project, which brings lawsuits challenging prison conditions across the country. Fathi says high vacancy and turnover rates often correlate to more violent incidents. But he says Corrections Officers do more than break up fights. “They feed the prisoners. Take them to the medical clinic. Take them to the recreation yard. So if you don’t have enough officers, every aspect of prison operation breaks down.”
Becoming a Corrections Officer may not have been what Carlos Galan was planning on, but now he says he proud of it. “It’s not a glamorous by any means, but it is a stable job,” he said. “We are not going to be out of work anytime soon. And I am glad to be a part of it.”