The percentage of Missouri corrections officers who quit each year has increased from about 15% seven years ago to the current 25%. That’s according to Missouri Corrections Officers Association executive director Gary Gross. He says 1,200 officers are hired annually in Missouri, which is about how many quit each year.
“We have institutions that are 20 and 30 officers short. Some of them as high as 50 or 60 in the bigger institutions. They’re just working massive amounts of overtime,” says Gross. “People working two extra shifts a week in some cases. They’re just working them to death. It all falls into one big problem.”
He says Western Missouri Correctional Center at Cameron has St. Joseph Correctional Center and Chillicothe Correctional Center busing officers to Western Missouri Correctional Center on their days off to fill positions so it can operate.
Staff shortages and turnover lead to safety concerns. Gross says some officers have been seriously assaulted by prisoners.
“You don’t have enough experienced staff to operate the institutions. If you go to work as a corrections officer, it takes you two or three years to really figure it out. The day you walk in there, you’re still not prepared for everything that might pop up,” says Gross.
Missouri has about 30,000 offenders within its 21 prisons.
Gross says retaining corrections officers is challenging when they are the lowest paid in the country. He says their starting pay is about $29,000 annually.
“There’s no pay increases for longevity of any kind for staying. So an officer with 15 years in, is making the same amount of money as an officer with nine months in,” says Gross.
He says several issues must be fixed within the department, including the prison culture. An investigation by Pitch.com has revealed that the department has more than sixty lawsuits, with more pending, in which employees claim they have been subjected to things like humiliation, groping, poisoning and assault from supervisors and co-workers to engage in sexual acts.
“I just think that’s a lot of the reason they have such a turnover problem and staff shortage. It just boils down to staff treatment,” says Gross.
The Pitch reveals that between 2012 and 2016, settlements with employees or former employees making the allegations cost the state more than $7.5 million.
Gross is optimistic that the culture could change if “the right people lead the department”.
George Lombardi is serving as the department’s director. He was appointed by Governor Jay Nixon (D).