Roundtable: How correctional leaders can address the recruitment crisis

With understaffing in correctional facilities a nationwide problem, here are some best practices facilities can implement to improve recruitment


Editor's note: Correctional facilities cannot find enough corrections officers to staff our nation’s prisons and jails. As older officers retire and experienced COs quit, hundreds of CO positions are waiting to be filled. This special coverage series, "Corrections Recruitment Toolkit: Strategies for hiring COs," provides recruitment strategies correctional facilities can deploy to tackle the staffing crisis head-on.

By C1 Staff

In this Aug. 16, 2016 file photo, a condemned inmate is led out of his east block cell on death row at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, file)
In this Aug. 16, 2016 file photo, a condemned inmate is led out of his east block cell on death row at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, file)

While the corrections profession has always struggled to recruit personnel, a sample of news headlines from the past year show that understaffing in correctional facilities is a nationwide crisis:

In this roundtable, we asked CorrectionsOne columnists how correctional leaders can address the recruitment crisis in corrections.

What is your agency doing to ensure it recruits adequate numbers of new officers, as well as retain its current workforce? Share best practices in the comments below or email editor@correctionsone.com.

Redesign recruitment planning

Setting up tables at jobs fairs and guest speaking in the local administration of justice college classes is not enough anymore to get a meaningful concentration of men and women who may be interested in entering the field of corrections. The energy we put into these endeavors provides only a trickle of applicants for corrections and even fewer viable candidates.

Where we focus our recruiting efforts should be dictated by which qualities matter most to our respective agencies. If you can look through the background files of your most successful hires from the past few years, you may find a common thread of life experience that cultivates characteristics that are valuable to your agency. Once you have identified where in your community this set of characteristics is cultivated, you can focus your recruiting efforts in areas rich with good candidates.

For example, high school and junior college sports players learn to take directions from their coaches, they perform regularly under high stress and they know how to work within a team. They also must maintain passing grades to continue playing sports. Contact local coaches. Get permission to show up at practices and send your recruiters to college award nights. Meet the best local sports players. Offer them a tour of your facility and show them the connections between the team they are in now and the team they could join when they start a career in corrections.

Zohar Zaied, correctional officer, California

Learn how to recruit! Putting up a job announcement on a state website or in a newspaper is not recruiting. There are so many avenues agencies could take to build a better applicant pool, yet agencies still seem to be trying to live in the “good old days” where they expect applicants are going to flood their department with applications. This is not happening anymore, but correctional facilities are failing to adjust.

The career field is different than it was 20 years ago, and unemployment rates are at one of the lowest points in the history of our country, yet the recruitment process has stayed the same. Agencies must get out into their communities and actively search for good people to work for them. I have worked with so many amazing officers throughout my career who I know have never been approached by another agency trying to recruit them to a better position. If an officer left my unit, my entire unit would then be approaching the director with a list of officers from other agencies that are well respected and admired. We would put together a recruitment plan on how to get one of them to join us. 

Tyson Howard, Probation/parole officer, 4th Judicial District Department of Correctional Services, Iowa

Provide stability

What one thing can corrections recruiters offer job seekers as enticement? The answer is security.

I believe most people like structure and security. In fact, seasoned corrections staff crave routine times. "Quiet is good" is a universal truth in corrections. I also believe that most job seekers prefer a job that will last. Stable vocations are attractive, particularly during challenging economic cycles. Experience tells us that the shifting sands of uncertainty will certainly return.

Corrections recruiters can offer a solid sense of stability in three ways: 

  • Job security: The fact that there is a recruitment crisis indicates corrections should be a good bet for long-term employment. Also, it is unlikely crime will disappear. Corrections is and will remain necessary.
  • Good benefits: It is no secret that the cost of healthcare benefits has steadily risen over the last three decades. A career that offers a decent benefits package will attract applicants from across the field of job seekers.
  • Comfortable retirement: As with guaranteed healthcare benefits, the promise of any sort of pension continues to erode. The "new" retirement can be found in a savings plan. (I question if I would have started a career in corrections if there were no pension.) Optimally, an employer offers a generous match to employee savings. Employers who can offer that have a better chance of attracting qualified candidates.

Granted, not all of these can be promised by recruiters; however, at least one of these secure elements is available from most corrections agencies. Given the challenge of a corrections career, it makes sense to have incentives such as these for recruiters to use. They make this difficult job easier for the employee to weather.

Joe Bouchard, faculty, Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College, Michigan

Invest in staff

Recruitment in corrections is flagging primarily due to the failure to address the corollary pillar to recruitment which is retention. Many departments struggle with both, pouring huge sums of money down the training hole, never reaping the dividends due to a lack of investment in four key areas, which I refer to as STEP:

  • Status: The standards for correctional officer are ever more complex and demanding, and while some departments have matriculated their staff into sworn law enforcement officers with at least some peace officer powers and status, many more are counting beans thereby closing their eyes to the bigger picture. All correctional officers deserve such status.
  • Training: Simply recycling new personnel through minimum standards to fill vacancies is a waste of time, effort and dollars. Recruitment should be the beginning of an investment that pays off with a yield of retention in experience and training capital. Further and more advanced training and investment in individuals that seek to make this a career translates into safer facilities, which results in lower liability exposure, fewer and smaller incidents, and better public relations.
  • Equipment: It remains a travesty that many correctional departments fail to provide state-of-the-art equipment and training commensurate with proven best practices and tactics. A protective vest, radio, personal alarm device, handcuffs, OC pepper spray, impact weapon and chemical munitions should be the minimum duty equipment for a trained correctional officer.
  • Pay: Many departments fail to render adequate pay that is commensurate with other law enforcement positions. Staff with peace officer status and training who put their lives and safety on the line should be compensated at the equivalent level of other law enforcement officers.

These four things are the root of both recruitment and retention problems in corrections. Addressing these issues and implementing changes would enhance both public and institutional safety.

Sergeant Russ Hamilton, CDCR corrections officer (ret.)

It’s all about the incentive. Facilities need to be competitive in their job offers and provide a decent salary with great benefits. 

Correctional officers also need recognition as law enforcement professionals. I believe such recognition would bring more respect to the field of corrections and hopefully, with that recognition, the system may begin to see positive changes that will benefit both staff and the population. 

Corrections should not be seen as a profession we settle into. Corrections should be seen as a noble profession that looks for the best people because, in this profession, only the best will survive.

Anthony Gangi, Tier Talk host

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