Corrections staffing shortages persist

Maximum security housing units at the Jefferson City Correctional Center are seen below dormitory-style housing at the minimum security Algoa Correctional Center in this June 24, 2004, photo in Jefferson City, Mo. (AP Photo/Kelley McCall)
Maximum security housing units at the Jefferson City Correctional Center are seen below dormitory-style housing at the minimum security Algoa Correctional Center in this June 24, 2004, photo in Jefferson City, Mo. (AP Photo/Kelley McCall)

The Missouri Department of Corrections' years-long struggle with understaffing has left incarcerated populations underserved and corrections officers at higher risk of assault, those who worked and are working in the prison system say.

The department has never been fully staffed, which is true of most departments of corrections across the United States, said Karen Pojmann, communications director for DOC.

The last few years has seen the department especially grapple with steadily eroding staffing levels.

Over the past five years, the state has invested more than $113 million in pay increases for corrections staff, said Pojmann. Yet the News Tribune spoke with current and former officers at the Jefferson City Correctional Center who cited excessive overtime, dangerous conditions and frustration with administrative decision-making as primary reasons for their departures.

Members of Missouri's incarcerated population have said the shortage has eroded crucial aspects of life in prison.

A month before former corrections officer Kent Riley's coworker quit his job at Jefferson City Correctional Center, he warned Riley "if things didn't change around JCCC, people were going to get really, really hurt."

Months later in mid-July of 2022, Riley lay comatose at the University of Missouri hospital, hooked up to life support. A mid-July staff assault at JCCC left Riley with severe and permanent injuries to his head, brain, sides and hip, according to a lawsuit Riley eventually filed.

Riley declined to comment for this story due to a lawsuit against the offender who assaulted him. In mid-December, Riley was awarded $1.5 million and his wife was awarded $500,000, according to online court records.

Former officer Levi Ozanich worked beside Riley throughout his entire career at JCCC, but when Ozanich visited him at the hospital, Riley didn't even recognize him, Ozanich said. He didn't recognize anyone, not even his family, for two full weeks.

Pojmann said discussing facility-specific staffing levels presents a security threat and poses a danger to offenders and staff. The minimum numbers of officers needed to maintain safe and stable operations, along with the methodology for those calculations are not public record.

"We have vacancies in all areas," Pojmann said. "Staff members who previously have been trained as corrections officers but now have different jobs in the department may and often do work overtime as custody staff."

Missouri's prison population has dipped slightly during the past two years, settling at around 23,000 offenders. Following changes to the state's criminal code five years ago, the number of incarcerated Missourians has declined by nearly 10,000 people.

Every morning, the daily shift boards at JCCC are supposed to be filled with the names of at least 93 officers, according to a shift board obtained by the News Tribune from mid-November. That morning, 45 names could be found on the shiftboard. Ozanich said these levels were typical while he worked at JCCC.

Amy Breihan, co-director of Missouri's MacArthur Justice Center, said the particular ratios of guards to offenders is critical in ensuring a safe environment in prisons. When that ratio can't be maintained, certain offenders are emboldened to commit violence, because they're more likely to get away with it.

Likewise, lower staffing levels mean offenders are forced to spend more time in their cells, which she said is detrimental to mental health and severely limits the department's ability to offer opportunities for self-improvement and rehabilitation.

No stability and routine

Former JCCC officer Emma Alvis was conducting routine cell checks in 2021 when she found a sandwich bag full of teeth.

She asked the men in the cell about the bag, and one man opened his mouth to speak. Before he'd even said a word, Alvis discovered whose teeth were in the bag.

The man told her that he'd had severe pain in his teeth to the point where he couldn't eat. He'd been sent to the dentist once and was told he'd be seen again to remove them. They never called him back. He waited, wrote requests and told nurses.

His pain was so bad, he eventually sat on the floor of his cell and pulled out his own teeth one by one, Alvis said.

When prisons are short-staffed, they go on lockdown or retract certain services and activities, Pojmann said. This might mean recreation time is shorter, meal services are altered, non-emergency medical appointments -- like the tooth removal appointment -- are delayed, and some programming for religious services, classes and library time gets suspended.

Inmates say they have noticed the change.

"Things that once ran like clockwork are now hit or miss," said Travis Canon who is incarcerated at JCCC. As it stands now, he's never leaving. "An important part of our life here is stability and routine. Now there is none," he said.

In 1997, Canon, who had been hooked on drugs, robbed a convenience store on U.S. 71 near Maryville. He shot and killed store clerk Gracie Hixson in the process. Faced with a possible death sentence at 21 years old, Canon took the advice of his attorney and pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. Since then, he's been serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

He said for years, JCCC rarely deviated from its set schedules and only the direst emergencies or institutional shakedowns altered daily activities.

"Now, almost every day there is one cancellation or another," Canon said. Officer counts are rarely cleared on time, recreation time is shortened, and certain areas are entirely closed off, he said. The chapel is closed almost every day. The education corridor can't run without staff to supervise.

Canon said these activities are a critical part of life for people who are incarcerated. Religious services, classes and recreation are some of the few opportunities offenders have to practice rehabilitation and reintegration.

"When people aren't getting time to go outside, exercise, communicate with loved ones and make medical appointments, there's a lot more tension. Offenders get frustrated and don't know what to do with those emotions. They lose their tempers, which in turn makes staff more frustrated. It's a cycle of mutual frustration," Canon said.

One of programs frequently canceled is sick calls where incarcerated people are able to seek medical assistance from a nurse. Centurion, the private company DOC contracts with to provide medical care to people in prisons, is also having staffing issues, said Pojmann.

According to Centurion's provider manual, health care services are supposed to be offered regularly, depending on the size of the facility.

"I couldn't tell you the last time I saw a sick call run when I was there," Ozanich said. "There were days at a time where they'd have a single Centurion nurse for the entire institution."

Ozanich said med pass, a scheduled time where medications are distributed, was frequently pushed back up to seven hours, so medications supposed to be taken at 3:30 p.m. wouldn't get into the hands of offenders until 10:30 p.m. He recalled some days where the 7 a.m. med pass for offenders in administrative segregation didn't get passed out at all.

Without sick calls, the burden of assessing a medical emergency is placed on officers who aren't medical professionals, said Alvis.

When staffing levels were critically low, Ozanich said, the admin pressured him to keep things running -- to not go on lock down or contract services. Ozanich knows it's for good reason that they're encouraged to keep things running. He called it a catch-22: either create a dangerous environment for both offenders and staff or cut vital services for offenders.

"Any dissent to the administration's decisions whatsoever would get you screwed around," he said. "Even when you start cutting away rust, there's no stopping it. Before long, you won't have a car left, but you keep cutting. That's what it's like. You're gonna keep digging and digging, and you're gonna find things that are getting worse and worse," he said.

'Working with what you've got'

On former corrections officer Levi Ozanich's hard drive is a folder with dozens of surveillance footage clips he gradually acquired while he worked at JCCC from 2004-21.

As a lieutenant, Ozanich used the videos to review and critique use of force situations. But as he pulled up a video of an offender bent to the ground by officers forcibly moving him into a suicide watch cell, he also gleefully admitted he enjoys watching them.

Ozanich was eventually fired from DOC for a use of force situation he alleges was bogus, since his partner who also responded identically to the incident wasn't fired.

Ozanich has a video of the incident where he was fired. He also has copies of numerous incidents caused and exacerbated by short staffing, including former corrections officer Kent Riley's assault.

"I want to somehow make things better by bringing these incidents to light. I don't know if there's any making it better at this point, because it's so far gone. But we at least need to try," Ozanich said.

Most of Ozanich's staffing-related videos follow a similar pattern. An officer is conducting a typical daily task when an offender attacks them any number of ways.

In one video from 2020, a lone officer stationed in the medical area gets punched several times by an offender before backup arrives. Ozanich, who knows that officer well, said they haven't been the same since. Ozanich said there were supposed to be two officers stationed in that area.

In the video, the officer calls for immediate assistance, using a 10-5 radio call, meaning immediate assistance is needed, said Ozanich. But it takes a handful of precious seconds for backup to arrive.

Over the years as the staffing situation deteriorated, Ozanich said, 10-5 radio calls became more frequent. He said he observed more 10-5 calls and more assaults in recent years during periods where they were severely understaffed compared to when he first started. His friends who still work at JCCC have told him they're called to respond to at least one 10-5 call every week.

Another assault video shows an offender knocking another offender unconscious near the bathrooms to the recreational area. Basketball courts are stationed to the left. Weight racks are positioned along the wall. A small barbershop area where offenders get haircuts is visible. Ozanich said typically there are a multitude of recreational and corrections officers sprinkled throughout this area and pointed to where they'd be stationed. In the video, there are none.

The whole video is 54 seconds long, but the offender punches the other more than 20 times until he lies unconscious on the floor. At the end of the video, the offender starts to walk away from the unconscious body, but then returns to shroud it from view.

Ozanich said the offender lay unconscious on the ground for hours before he got back up and walked himself back to his cell, and officers didn't find out about the incident until a week after it occurred.

He said this fight would have been easily identified and prevented had there been a single officer in the area. Instead recreation officers, most of whom are ex-correctional officers, had likely been moved to cover understaffed housing units.

During Ozanich's time at JCCC, he'd find out about more and more stabbings and fights from security footage and inmates writing snitch guides, forms to report incidents.

"I would read shift reports, and you'd have offenders that were walking up to medical care by themselves with stab wounds because they were stabbed and nobody saw it."

Ozanich said having enough staff deters incidents like these. "If you'd had any normal amount of staffing, there would have been more people in there before they even tried to engage with the offender," said Ozanich. "They should have gotten more, but you work with what you got when you're short staffed."

Ozanich said the administration would get mad at them for instances where they used force, but both separately said it's difficult not to when you have almost no backup.

"You've got staff that are trying to do their job and maintain safety and security, but there's no backup," he said. This stuff might seem ridiculous to people who don't actually work there. And for real, it is kind of ridiculous. But that's just how it is in there."

'It's a chronic condition'

Tim Cutt, director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, said Missouri prisons are now suffering the consequences of decades of mistreating employees and the bad reputation the Department of Corrections has gotten.

Cutt knows many correctional employees are burned out, especially those working 16 to 18 hours a day. But he says burnout doesn't get to the root of the problem.

"In my opinion and a lot of the frontline staff's opinion, it's a chronic condition because the administration doesn't understand why it's happening," Cutt said. "The problem is the way these people are treated while they're on the job by the supervisory staff at these institutions."

Cutt and Alvis both said grievances and complaints about treatment are, at best, discarded, and, at worst, grounds for retaliation.

Lori Curry, executive director of the advocacy group Missouri Prison Reform, said she has received numerous messages from current and former employees who spoke to the issues in the department but refused to go on the record out of fear of retaliation.

"You get people in here who find themselves in positions where they're wielding serious power," Cutt said. "They think they can treat anybody any way they want. If they complain, the supervisor gets together with his other supervisors and targets that individual who complained even if their concern was legitimate. You don't have the right to be heard anymore."

Alvis said during her time at JCCC she observed things worth complaining about on a daily basis. "But I wouldn't bring something up every day because of the atmosphere," she said.

"For officers who are more kind or empathetic to offenders and what they're going through, complaining could lead to retaliation," she said, adding she'd been placed at more arduous posts after bringing up complaints. She said there were employees like her who raised complaints and were more empathetic to inmates. Around the time she quit, more and more of these kinds of officers and caseworkers like her who were more empathetic were also quitting, legitimizing and heightening the presence of officers known to escalate conflicts, antagonize offenders, and endanger themselves and fellow officers, she said.

This antagonization from officers puts the officer at risk of being on the receiving end of an outburst, but it also puts the offender at further risk with other inmates. Alvis said, "If you're gonna let that officer talk to you like that and you ain't got no backbone, well guess what we're (fellow inmates) gonna do whatever we want to you. That's the position that they've put the offender in now. So if he doesn't stick up for himself, then anything could happen to him. Because officers don't catch everything. There's so much they're just not able to catch."

The staffing situation subverts much of what Breihan learned in law school about the philosophy of incarceration. In school, prison was framed as a way of both punishing people for wrong doings and creating an environment for self-improvement and rehabilitation. She said the consequences of low staffing eliminate opportunities for rehabilitation.

Alvis agreed, saying, "Any rehabilitation happening inside Missouri prisons is because of the offenders helping each other and helping themselves."