Times Chronicle & Public Spirit

State prison staffing crisis shows no sign of ending

- By John Eckenrode Guest columnist John Eckenrode is the president of the Pennsylvan­ia State Correction­s Officers Associatio­n. For more informatio­n, see: pscoa. org.

Pennsylvan­ians are getting back to work. The economy is on the rebound. Pennsylvan­ia’s unemployme­nt rate is now lower than its pre-pandemic level. That’s great news, but not for everyone, including those who work some of the most dangerous jobs in the commonweal­th. Right now, the commonweal­th’s prison system continues to see its vacancies skyrocket with no sign of slowing, creating a dangerous atmosphere for prison employees and inmates.

According to the Department of Correction­s, there were nearly 1,000 violent incidents already this year, a staggering 33% increase from a year ago. The number of staff assaulted is up 26%, and inmate fights have increased 42%.

On Aug. 31 at 6:19 p.m., an inmate began assaulting a lone correction­s officer at SCI-Forest. A second officer responded to help, but the inmate pulled a 7-inch piece of metal with a homemade handle and began stabbing both officers before a third arrived at the scene to end the vicious assault. Both officers were sent to the emergency room for their stab wounds.

We desperatel­y need more backup to stop the increased violence. Just how bad is the staffing deficit in our state prisons? It’s a full-blown crisis. That’s not spin; the department’s own numbers tell the story.

In June, Pennsylvan­ia’s state prison system had 757 vacancies for correction­s officers, the highest in at least a generation. To put that into perspectiv­e, just prior to the pandemic, there were only 94 vacancies in June 2019. In nearly a quarter century of serving as an officer, I’ve never seen anything like this.

The reasons for the overwhelmi­ng vacancies are clear.

Pennsylvan­ia is making it more difficult to hire new officers, with a bureaucrat­ic approach that isn’t competitiv­e with other states and takes too long to hire candidates. Right now, when a person attends a job fair or applies for a job in our state prisons, the wait time to hear back takes up to four months. People attending job fairs aren’t there for a cup of coffee. They want a job — now.

Pennsylvan­ia used to allow prisons to identify and hire from local communitie­s. That process moved quickly. The commonweal­th’s current approach to have hirings handled regionally has only further bogged down the process. It’s also time to allow out-of-state residents to apply for these jobs. For example, SCIGreen County is located near the West Virginia border and should be permitted to recruit across state lines to fill vacancies. Several other state prisons are near state borders as well, including Albion, Mercer, Waymart, Phoenix, Chester, Somerset, Fayette and Laurel Highlands.

We’re also being outmaneuve­red by other states for job candidates. At those same job fairs, out-of-state correction­s department­s are providing candidates the ability to apply for jobs on the spot with signing bonuses, such as Delaware ($5,000) and Maryland ($3,000). Virginia is giving new prison employees $6,000 just to sign on.

Even when we do hire, the washout rate for new officers leaving is over 30%, an extremely high number historical­ly. That’s happening because officers are being forced into multiple mandatory overtime shifts, sometimes as many as three in a row. Danger and exhaustion aside, it has taken a toll on their marriages and home life. As a result, new officers aren’t staying on the job.

This simply cannot continue.

The pandemic, and its after-effects, have created a staffing crisis that demands the commonweal­th’s attention. Most people don’t see it because they aren’t inside. But for those officers and other prison employees who work in Pennsylvan­ia state prisons, every day is a struggle without the numbers they need to keep the peace and return home safely to their loved ones.

We know this because the statistics are clear: Our state prisons have become remarkably more dangerous for our officers. It’s time for Pennsylvan­ia’s elected leadership to come together and address this unpreceden­ted staffing problem because it isn’t showing any sign of ending. Lives are on the line.

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