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COVID-19 Amplifies Dire Staffing Shortages At Tennessee Prisons

Courtesy Tennessee Department of Correction

The head of Tennessee’s prison system says the number of unfilled correctional officer positions has reached an “all-time high.”

Many facilities were already severely understaffed. Now, officials say the pandemic has made recruitment even harder.

The Department of Correction says it’s short more than 700 prison guards. That’s nearly 30% of all the correctional officer jobs statewide.

Commissioner Tony Parker says “not everyone’s cut out to work in corrections.”

“And we found, with the COVID, with the pandemic on us, I think there was more resistance from people wanting to work in corrections,” he told lawmakers last week.

Officials say new job opportunities at big companies like General Motors and Amazon have also cut into the applicant pool. Turnover has decreased in recent years, but the department still lost about a third of its officers in the most recent fiscal year.

Those shortages can pose a serious danger to both prisoners and employees — especially when people have to take off work to quarantine. More than 500 prison staffers have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.

Parker says the department is trying everything it can think of to recruit more correctional officers, from promotional videos and virtual job fairs to streamlining the online application process. He says a recent pay raise from the state also helped.

“Everybody understood the need and everybody agreed with that need,” Parker says. “We are very appreciative for that pay increase.”

But the typical starting salary for Tennessee correctional officers is still lower than many of its competitors. According to the department’s most recent annual report, the average entry-level wage for a TDOC correctional officer is $32,524. The report cites higher wages in Alabama and Virginia as well as at several of the state’s largest sheriff’s offices, like in Davidson and Shelby Counties.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, told prison officials at a subcommittee hearing last week that he worries the state is being “penny wise and pound foolish” in its recruitment and retention efforts, especially given the high cost of training each new correctional officer. He hopes the state can save more in the long-term by investing in employees who are willing to stick it out.

“I wonder if there is a way for us to leverage this,” Yarbro says. “It is maddening from a mathematical perspective to look at.”

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.

Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and
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