Problems will only get worse at Missouri's prisons unless improvements are made to the pay and benefits of the state's corrections officers, according to the head of the group representing the officers.
Inmate tensions are rising across the state over restrictions borne out of staff shortages, said Gary Gross, director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association.
The latest inmate protest occurred July 4 at the Tipton Correctional Center. In May, inmates rioted at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron in western Missouri.
The Cameron prison is still on lockdown, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said. She said the lockdown is necessary because repairs are still being made to the facility and the investigation is continuing. As part of the lockdown, Cameron inmates are getting sack meals and can receive no phone calls or visits other than from attorneys.
At Tipton, visiting privileges have been cancelled for this weekend.
Pojmann said no one was injured in the Tipton disturbance that began between 9-10 p.m. Wednesday when some inmates refused to return to their housing units after recreation time. They had to be escorted by officers. Further confrontations were reported in three housing units, but major damage, such as broken windows and damaged walls, was reported in only one unit, she said.
Pojmann said inmates apparently were upset over rules regulating such things as how many inmates can congregate in one place. She said the rules were already in place but recently had been enforced more strictly.
"I'm a bit uncomfortable with the word 'uprising,' which suggests violence and a takeover of power," Pojmann said. "The incidents at Crossroads and Tipton could be more accurately described as protests that escalated and resulted in property damage.
"Both incidents were contained inside specific buildings, and staff retained control of the perimeter of these buildings and all other areas of both institutions," she said.
Pojmann added no officers were attacked or hurt in either incident.
"We don't have any reports of physical violence committed against offenders in either situation," she said. "Our staff acted admirably and handled the incidents appropriately. Both were resolved peacefully."
Throughout the state, the Department of Corrections has more than 11,200 corrections officer positions. As of this week, there were 700 open starting-level corrections officer positions statewide.
Gross couldn't give exact numbers, but he said officers and staff are "working enormous amounts of overtime."
"In some institutions, they're using non-correctional staff to work as corrections officers," he said.
Pojmann said it was true the department had to have staff work overtime to keep the facilities operating. She was not aware of any non-custody staff doing work custody staff would do.
"We've gotten information that inmates are calling for a strike on Aug. 21 throughout the state," Gross added. "All corrections facilities across the state are terribly understaffed, including the Jefferson City Correctional Center and Algoa Correctional Center."
Pojmann said the potential strike Gross is referring to is a national event and not specifically targeting Missouri prisons. She added it's not related to staffing shortages.
Gross said the situation became critical in just the last year.
"The turnover rate exploded because people are not willing to commit to those type of overtime hours, and with the economy picking up, there are plenty of other jobs available," he said. "Prisons are not a desirable place to work. Lawsuits have been filed in the past, and more will be coming from prison staff."
The state has been advertising aggressively for job applicants.
"We've had a lot of success in attracting new applicants using tools such as job fairs, social media and digital ad campaigns, billboards, word of mouth and employee incentive programs," Pojmann said. "Because the economy in Missouri is strong, the national unemployment rate is at an 18-year low, and our entry-level salaries aren't always as competitive with private-sector jobs as we'd like, recruiting, training and retaining good applicants can be a challenge.
"State jobs offer great benefits, such as abundant paid vacation and sick leave, medical insurance and a retirement plan, so we have success at retaining committed, hardworking Missourians who seek long-term stability and security," she said.
In addition to investing in the recruitment of staff, Pojmann said, the department has launched an in-depth supervisor-development program aimed at improving the work environment and retaining staff. About 2,000 supervisors have begun training, and "we've received resoundingly positive feedback," she said.
The staffing issue is one small part of a complex situation statewide, Pojmann said.
"About 32,000 people are incarcerated in Missouri state prisons at any one time, and we supervise 58,000 people on probation or parole," she said. "We also release 19,000-20,000 people every year, so in a given year, as many as 45,000-50,000 Missourians pass through our facilities. That's a lot of people, requiring a lot of staff. Many of the prisons are located in rural areas with a very small population of potential corrections employees."
The department has started some initiatives to help reduce recidivism and the prison population:
Launching a pilot program to provide behavioral health treatment and comprehensive re-entry services to people on supervision in Boone, Butler and Buchanan counties.
Procured a new assessment tool to help identify the particular needs and risks associated with each offender, increasing the chances of success when they leave prison. The Ohio Risk Assessment System was developed to assess offenders at every step in their prison process starting from their incarceration, up to when they are up for parole. It evaluates offenders for their chances of re-offending and gets them the kinds of services they may need, whether in areas such as education or mental health, to stay out of prison.
Adding new vocational training, apprenticeship and higher-education programs in facilities to help offenders become successful after release.
Arranging video job interviews with prospective employers, and offenders are now procuring jobs before they're released.
Gross is unconvinced the state is doing enough.
"I know they're working on programs to release some of the prisoners to try and open some housing units and ease tensions, but I think they should be looking at it from the staff viewpoint — in other words, why aren't people wanting to work here?" Gross said.
"I started as a corrections officer in 1984 and put in 15 years total. I've been the director of the association for the last 19 years, and this is probably the worst conditions I've seen," he said.
Gross said cuts in benefits for corrections officers have hurt recruiting, along with health insurance and retirement changes. Terminations also can be done at will.
"It's a $14-an-hour job, and a lot of the work out there now is $14-an-hour jobs," he said. "People won't do this work for that type of pay. The state has failed to keep up with pay scales."
The problem goes far beyond staffing issues, Pojmann said.
"Missouri has the eighth-highest incarceration rate in the country, a problem that exacerbates the staffing challenges and extends far beyond the purview of the Department of Corrections," Pojmann said.
"In the second half of 2017, we partnered with the Council of State Governments on a Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which entailed extensive research into the state's entire criminal justice system. The process revealed about half of the people who return to prison are there because of technical parole violations, such as missing an appointment with a parole officer or failing to keep a job — not because they've committed new crimes. This takes up about 3,400 prison beds and costs the state nearly $74 million a year.
"Additionally, many people in prison are there for reasons tied to mental health or substance use issues," Pojmann concluded. "About 88 percent of people who enter our facilities need substance use treatment, and about 14 percent need treatment for mental illnesses. Missourians aren't getting the help they need in the community."