Opinion: If you want insurance for your recruitment efforts, don’t forget about retention

Even the most robust recruitment program won’t solve correctional facility staffing challenges if there’s no plan to retain personnel


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.

Imagine you have just purchased a new home. You shopped around for the best mortgage and put 20% down, in addition to paying closing costs. You hired an inspector to check the home for mold, pests and structural issues. There’s a lot riding on the investment you just made. No doubt, your lender will require you to purchase homeowner’s insurance, because you and the bank have put a ton of money into the property.

Capt. Dwain Williams checks on a prisoner in the the Special Management Unit, known as high-max at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Capt. Dwain Williams checks on a prisoner in the the Special Management Unit, known as high-max at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Likewise, corrections departments across the country are making a huge investment in hiring new corrections officers. Take Michigan for example. Training a single CO costs an average of $25,654, according to a report the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) recently gave to the state legislature. Multiply that by 820 (the number of officers MDOC hopes to hire this year), and you’ve got more than $21 million – a sizeable investment. But what are corrections departments doing to protect that investment?

If that price tag seems high, consider that in 2013, Michigan outsourced corrections officer training to community colleges to cut training costs. Recruits had to pay thousands out of pocket and hope they would be hired at the end of training. It was a failed experiment, and MDOC returned to a centrally operated training academy in 2015. MDOC has been in a staffing crisis ever since. Today there are more than 700 CO vacancies, with an average of 50 leaving the career every month.

Corrections officers are professionals who have more responsibility than ever, and their training must be thorough and of the highest quality. Like other investments, corrections officer training requires capital upfront. It is a worthwhile investment that deserves protecting.

Correctional officer salaries and benefits must reflect work stresses

Of course, people aren’t houses, and COs can choose to leave their positions, but corrections departments can make that decision to leave a difficult one by adding incentives to stay. This is imperative now that unemployment is low, wages are rising, and the public and private sectors are scrambling for good employees. Now more than ever, the pay and benefits offered to correctional officers must reflect the daily stresses and dangers of working inside a prison.

Retention was one of the core issues during union bargaining between the Michigan Corrections Organization (MCO) and the state of Michigan last year. MCO’s mantra at bargaining was “Risk, Reward, Retention.” Officers risk so much, so there must be some reward to retain staff. According to one MDOC analysis, 27% of all COs who left the job in the last fiscal year had fewer than three years of service.

In bargaining, MCO proposed a retention bonus that would pay COs between $750 to $1,750, according to their years of service, every year for three years. This wasn’t intended to be a permanent solution, but a stopgap to prevent the vacancy problem from getting worse while hiring ramps up. Unfortunately, MDOC refused, even though it would have cost a small fraction of its $2 billion annual budget.

Pension, healthcare in retirement

Another reward that used to keep Michigan officers on the job was the promise of a pension and healthcare in retirement.

The state of Michigan eliminated pensions for staff hired after March 1997 and introduced 401(k) plans, which staff can take with them to most new jobs. In 2011, retirement healthcare was converted to a convoluted, multi-tier system in which some employees only get a healthcare spending account in retirement. The pension and retirement healthcare had rewarded the dedicated staff who stuck with the career for the long haul. It discouraged COs from leaving for county corrections or other law enforcement jobs – some of which still provide these benefits.

Staffing shortages worsened at prisons around the country after the 2008 economic downturn. States slashed spending, and corrections bore the brunt of the cuts. At the time, there was little legislative debate about the dangers of low staffing. Combine this economic reality with the surge in retirements of officers hired during the 1980s prison boom, and you have perfect conditions for a staffing crisis. In addition to asking ourselves how to recruit, we need to be asking ourselves how to retain.

We buy insurance to protect our biggest assets, like our homes. It’s time state corrections departments start protecting one of their multi-million-dollar assets – their staff. They can’t buy insurance to protect their investment in staff, but they can take steps to make the stress of the job worthwhile and get our prisons back to safe staffing levels. The answer can be found in better pay and benefits.

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