By Megan Quattlebaum
Jeffrey Epstein’s recent suicide in a federal jail in Manhattan is still being investigated. But what we know thus far suggests that his story reflects a broader, painful truth: Many prisons and jails in the United States are severely understaffed.
According to news reports, the officers in the unit where Epstein lived were both working overtime—one being ordered to do so because the jail was understaffed, the other a former corrections officer who no longer regularly performed line supervision, but volunteered for the extra pay. These are staffing tactics of last resort – the kind taken by corrections leaders with few options.
It’s not hard to imagine why correctional facilities might have trouble recruiting and retaining staff. After all, prisons and jails in the United States are austere by design, and corrections officers face a higher risk of injury on the job compared to other professions. Add to these persistent challenges our current low unemployment rate, which has shrunk the labor pool and placed some states on the losing end of a battle to offer competitive pay and benefits. It’s a perfect recipe for a staffing crisis.
But the picture is not the same across the country. Ask two corrections leaders whether staffing is a problem in their system and you can get two very different answers. Corrections administrators in northeastern states have told me that their vacancy rates for officers are low, though they struggle to hire medical professionals for their health services units. Meanwhile, many leaders in southern and midwestern states have said that staff shortages are their No. 1 concern, with one describing the situation to me as an “epidemic.” And in some areas that have multiple correctional facilities operated by different state, county, city or federal governments, officials may end up competing with one another to hire from an ever-smaller pool of candidates.
States are responding creatively, through social media recruiting, higher salaries, pipelines from technical colleges, improved training, staff wellness initiatives, and even signing bonuses. Some states are also taking steps to reserve prison beds only for those situations in which public safety truly requires them. This can serve to reduce overcrowding, which continues to plague some state corrections systems and can make a prison an intolerable place to work and live.
Most exciting to me are states that are reimagining corrections, profiting from models in other countries to create spaces that are geared toward personal transformation. I recently visited with people who work and live in Connecticut’s TRUE Unit —a special program for young adults that seeks to equip them with the resources and skills they need to become their own agents of change. It felt calmer and more hopeful than many other correctional environments I’ve visited, and staff confirmed that they enjoy working in the unit. Notably, these types of models, which help produce dramatically lower recidivism rates in countries like Norway where they are used, are even more staffing-intensive than a traditional correctional environment. Different versions of these units are now cropping up in prisons and jails in places like South Carolina and Middlesex County, Mass. Similarly, Oregon corrections leaders traveled to Norway for training and brought the curriculum back to their own facilities to encourage corrections officers to rethink how they supervise people.
If a correctional facility is moderately short-staffed, administrators might first eliminate services that seem optional, like educational courses or opportunities for family and friends to visit. In other words, they will cut the “correctional” aspect of corrections in favor of frontline security and surveillance. But before we become complacent with the idea that at least the essential public safety function is being fulfilled in such a scenario, consider this: Successful rehabilitation is the ultimate public safety initiative, targeting people who are at high risk for committing crimes (and being victimized by them) and supporting them along a different path.
There are only two options: win-win or lose-lose. In the lose-lose scenario, we consign people who work and live in prisons to harsh, understaffed facilities where violence is common and rehabilitation is exchanged for its opposite. The predictable results—for both corrections officers and people under their supervision—include PTSD, suicide, deteriorating mental and physical health, and sometimes injury or death. And for the rest of us, the outcomes include neighbors and future neighbors who have been groomed to cause harm to themselves and others. But this “everybody loses” story is not inevitable. Everybody wins when the sanction of incarceration is deployed appropriately and facilities are well-staffed and built to create the best possible conditions and supports for people to choose to change.
Critics sometimes refer to American prisons as “warehouses,” but that suggests that people go out the same way they came in. Recent events remind us that understaffed prisons can cause harm, not only for people who are incarcerated, but also those who work there. And the harms they produce will not be contained within their walls.
Megan Quattlebaum is the director of The Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonpartisan membership organization representing officials in all three branches of state government.