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Staffing shortages in Pa. jails, prisons continue but are improving 

  • Katie Knol

 AP photo

Pennsylvania prisons and county jails have experienced staffing shortages since the COVID-19 pandemic, when workers retired or quit, and there weren’t enough new employees to fill the roles. 

Years later, there are still hundreds of open positions. 

John Eckenrode, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, which represents guards at state prisons, said shortages are bad for officers and prisoners. 

When there aren’t enough corrections officers, the ones that are working often have to pick up overtime. They might work extra-long shifts or come in to work on their days off. 

He said tired officers are more likely to make mistakes. 

“We’re tasked with care, custody and control, and part of that is being able to communicate effectively, being able to intervene when things aren’t going the way that they’re supposed to be going,” Eckenrode said. “And when you’re tired, sometimes, unfortunately, you get a little bit ornery sometimes.” 

Prisons are having trouble maintaining their staff. Eckenrode said at its worst, they were at about 30 to 35 percent attrition for employees in their first year. 

Money is one reason why. 

“Do I want to go inside of a corrections institution and work and run the risk of being assaulted or seeing things that most people don’t have to deal with or do I go to an Amazon warehouse and make the same amount of money?” Eckenrode said. 

However, the strain on staffing is easing. At its worst, Eckenrode estimated there were around 1,000 vacancies throughout the 23 state prisons. Now, that number is around 600. 

County jail staffing levels are improving, too, said Melanie Gordon, the human services and criminal justice policy director for the PA County Commissioners Association. She wouldn’t provide numbers but said retention rates are going up across the state. 

She said one big change has been an increase in pay.

“A lot of counties explored recruitment and retention bonuses that would have payouts for folks who signed on and stayed a certain amount of time, or give bonuses to the existing staff,” Gordon said. 

She said every county is different, but across the board, things seem to be looking up. 

“That’s the sense that we’re getting broadly from counties is that as the broad employment market has settled a little bit, that people are finding it’s a place that they’re willing to stay and settle into that role and are being retained at a higher level rather than so much turnover of the newer staff,” she said. 

Eckenrode said the association is going to be pushing for even higher pay and better healthcare for its members. 

Eckenrode said the last officer contract expired at the end of June 2023, so they are just now starting contract negotiations with the commonwealth. He said they’re hoping for better pay and healthcare, which he says would further help prisons hire and retain staff. 

Beyond “ornery” officers, prisoners also have to deal with a lack of activities when there isn’t enough staff, according to reporting by LNP, WITF’s sister newsroom. 

“The pandemic and relatively low pay for corrections officers has made it very difficult for jails and prisons in Pennsylvania to maintain programming and activities for those incarcerated,” John Hargreaves, volunteer director at the Pennsylvania Prison Society, told LNP. 

Celeste Trusty, deputy director of state policy with Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said officer exhaustion and fewer staff members also impact inmate safety. 

“We hear of people who need medical treatment, who are unable to get the treatment, people who are unable to schedule visits with their families, people who just have simple things neglected because of the understaffing situation,” Trusty said. 

She said community and family interaction are especially important for those behind bars, and when there aren’t enough staff members to run programs, it’s the inmates who suffer. 

However, Trusty said she doesn’t believe more corrections officers are the solution. “Care, custody and control” are important, but “the goal of the Department of Corrections is correction.”

She said she’d like to see more incarcerated individuals come home — especially those who are elderly or seriously sick.

“If the folks are inside, who have benefited from programming and change and have been able to take advantage of the things that they’ve been offered and really exhibited the human capacity to change, and they’ve exhibited those qualities, then we also should be able to relieve the pressure there and allow those folks to come home,” Trusty said. “And then we also would be able to relieve that staffing crisis as well.” 

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