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Shortage of correctional officers leaves prison staff stretched thin

A sign at NC Correctional Institution for Women in June 2022 advertises that the prison is hiring correctional officers. Staff shortages are present across many of the state's prisons, and the Department of Adult Correction is working to recruit and hire people to fill the vacancies.
Rachel Crumpler
NC Health News
A sign at NC Correctional Institution for Women in June 2022 advertises that the prison is hiring correctional officers. Staff shortages are present across many of the state's prisons, and the Department of Adult Correction is working to recruit and hire people to fill the vacancies.

By Rachel Crumpler | North Carolina Health News

About six years ago, Wendell Powell, then a lieutenant managing staffing at Granville Correctional Institution, had at least 41 correctional officers working per shift.

That was the minimum staffing standard — one he said he could easily meet. But Powell said those numbers plummeted over the past few years.

“I would have never imagined that I would have went from having a shift of 45 officers where I could point in any direction and have plenty of staff to do anything — and then to see that dwindle down to where there's 10 of us on a shift,” Powell said. “It’s very challenging. It’s very stressful.”

In response to staffing gaps, Powell said he frequently had to hold staff over past their shift or call others to come in to get to a number where people could work safely. Some beds at the prison also closed because he lacked the bodies to staff them, Powell said.

Now these kinds of staffing shortages are typical across North Carolina’s prisons as the Department of Adult Correction grapples with persistent vacancies.

Of the 8,182 total correctional officer positions across the prison system, 3,260 positions — or about 40 percent — are unfilled as of Jan. 4, according to Department of Adult Correction staffing data provided to NC Health News.

Some prisons are more strained than others, with the correctional officer vacancy rate by facility ranging from a low of about 5 percent to as high as 69 percent. Sixteen of the state’s 53 prisons have half or more of their correctional officer positions vacant, according to December 2023 staffing data by facility provided to NC Health News.

A bar chart showing that the overall prison system correctional officer vacancy rate is about 40% but also that some prisons are more short-staffed than others.
Rachel Crumpler / NC Health News

Due to insufficient staffing, 5,338 prison beds across 25 facilities are temporarily closed, Department of Adult Correction spokesperson John Bull said in a statement.

To help fill those staffing gaps, Bull said, the Department of Adult Correction has nearly 400 private security contractors working at the state’s prisons. Those contractors provide perimeter security, which frees up state correctional officers for other duties inside the prisons.

Even with contract staff and other staffing mitigation measures, Bull said the adjusted correctional officer vacancy rate sits at about 29 percent system-wide.

He said that much of that vacancy is covered by existing staff working overtime. In 2023, prison staff racked up 1.6 million hours of overtime to help keep operations going.

Powell said the resulting work schedules have been grueling for many of the workers tasked with overseeing the state’s prison population of nearly 31,000. Shifts are often longer with fewer breaks and more tasks for each worker to complete. Days off get fewer and farther between. Staff are required to work overtime, which means they miss more time at home with their families, adding to staff burnout.

“The workload doesn't change,” Powell added. “You just don't have as much staff to help delegate that workload.”

Such workloads lead to significant stress. Compared with the general public, studies show that correctional officers across the country have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and are at greater risk of suicide.

“I’ve heard staff say ‘I can go work at a warehouse making almost $30 an hour, and I don’t have to deal with what I'm dealing with inside of a prison,’” Powell said.

Challenge maintaining full workforce

Maintaining a full workforce in prisons has always been a challenge because of the nature of the work and work environment, but COVID-19 pushed staffing to new lows. A larger number of people left their jobs when the coronavirus, which swept through the state’s prisons, added a new risk to the job.

North Carolina prison staffing levels have yet to rebound from that COVID exodus.

In 2023, the North Carolina Department of Adult Correction hired 1,993 employees across all job classes, according to data shared with NC Health News. However, almost as many people — 1,906 — left their jobs with the prison system over the same time period.

That leaves staffing gaps relatively unchanged. Prison systems across the country are similarly grappling with significant staff shortages and struggling to rebuild their workforce.

“Like nearly all employers in the current economy, we are trying very hard to fill the correctional officer vacancies,” Bull said. “This is not just a North Carolina issue.”

Brian Dawe, national director of One Voice United, an advocacy organization for correctional officers, said lingering staff shortages create a spiral in which correctional officers are overworked and burn out, causing them to quit or retire. He explained that as more is demanded of staff on the job to compensate for vacancies, more staff leave. Then as more staff leave, the working environment becomes less appealing, making it harder to attract — and keep — new workers.

“We have a constant mental conflict when we go behind those walls, and it gets worse and worse as staffing decreases,” said Dawe, who was once a Massachusetts state correctional officer.

Powell agreed that shortages exacerbate an already tough work environment.

“If we had the numbers, it wouldn't be so bad,” said Powell, who is also first vice president of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, a group that advocates for the interests of state employees, including prison staff. “It wouldn't be as stressful because you have more people to help do stuff.”

Staffing ‘chess game’

Powell, now a captain at Harnett Correctional Institution in Lillington, said staffing there is also stretched thin. Department of Adult Correction data from December 2023 showed more than 60 percent of correctional officer positions are vacant at the prison.

He said he constantly has to consider how he can pull enough staffing together. It’s become a complex chess game, he said, of strategizing how to keep the prison running as smoothly as possible with fewer staff.

“Some days, I think you’re scratching a bald spot in your head because you’re scratching your head so much because you just don't know,” Powell said.

He’s frequently asking staff to work extra shifts and calling them in to get required daily tasks accomplished. Powell asks for volunteers to fill the holes as much as possible, he said, but there are also many days he has to require staff to come in because, at the end of the day, the work has to get done by someone.

The staffing shortages have also caused Powell and other prison management staff to step in to complete the day-to-day tasks of line-duty correctional officers, such as monitoring meals, showers and medical and transfer trips, Powell said. However, acting in this capacity can put Powell’s administrative work behind because he said he’s spending less time on his own tasks in his office such as completing investigations, safety reports and ordering items.

Powell recognizes that the heavy workload takes a toll on his staff. After all, he’s felt it himself. An overworked, tired staff presents its own issues, Powell said. He’s got to more closely assess and weigh their competency.

“When you see people who are tired, can you send them to do complicated tasks?” he asked. “Can I send this person into a situation where they may have to use their head to prevent an escape?”

“Staff needs to be sharp — to focus and be aware of everything around them,” Powell added. “When you've been working a bunch of days, you are tired mentally and exhausted physically.”

Department of Adult Correction staffing snapshot as of Jan. 4:

  • 5,044 of 18,906 total positions (27 percent) across the department are vacant.
  • 3,260 of 8,182 total correctional officer positions (40 percent) are vacant.
  • 315 of 780 nursing positions (40 percent) are vacant.
  • 12 of 61 physician positions (20 percent) are vacant.
  • 23 of 96 dental positions (24 percent) are vacant.
  • 13 of 81 pharmacy positions (16 percent) are vacant.
  • 52 of 195 mental health staff positions (27 percent) are vacant.
  • 41 of 186 substance abuse positions (22 percent) are vacant.

Tough operational decisions

There are some days where the staffing just doesn’t add up, Powell said, forcing tough operational decisions that affect incarcerated people.

“If we don't have enough staff to put them on the yard so they can get rec time and play basketball to work off their frustration, now they are stuck in the building all day, and offenders get a little antsy,” Powell said. “You may get away with that a day or two, but you can't do that for a whole week or a month.”

“If I shut the school down … the teachers don't get paid,” Powell said, continuing to reflect on the challenging logistical decisions he has to weigh regarding staffing. “If [inmates] don't come to the dining hall, now we're using Styrofoam plates. There's a cost with that instead of using regular trays. If I pull the clothes house staff, who’s washing inmates’ clothes? How are they getting socks? How are they getting pillows?

“If I'm shutting things down [due to insufficient staff], there’s things they can't do or things they can't get that they're supposed to.”

Powell doesn’t want to have to shut things down, but given current staffing levels, he said, that sometimes has to happen in the interest of safety for staff and for those incarcerated.

“You’re doing a dance of ‘Is it safe?’” Powell said. “If I have 100-plus inmates and I got two people watching them, what happens if something happens?”

Ardis Watkins, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said at an October prison reform conference that safety amid ongoing vacancies is a top concern.

Staffing shortages put everybody at risk “all day, every day,” she said, noting that when four staff members were killed at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in eastern North Carolina during a 2017 escape attempt, almost a third of the facility’s positions were vacant.

Bull, the prison spokesperson, said that the prison system constantly adjusts offender populations at individual facilities based on a number of factors, including staffing levels.

No quick fix

Todd Ishee, secretary of the Department of Adult Correction, also spoke at the prison reform conference. He acknowledged that the department’s 40 percent vacancy rate among correctional officers is “not good” and is an “anchor” holding back prison programs and services.

“We're working hard to dig us out of our staffing challenges that have plagued us for some time,” Ishee said at the conference, noting that there is no quick fix — especially with competition from other employers.

Bull said some of the department’s tactics to recruit more officers include holding hundreds of job fairs and hiring events as well as running broadcast ads across the state on online platforms, billboards and vehicles. The hiring process has been streamlined so that conditional offers of employment to qualified applicants can be made at the time of their interviews.

Additionally, Bull said, the department has launched an employee retention and morale campaign called “All In” that empowers individual facilities to seek solutions for retaining and supporting employees — from family and childcare issues to amenities such as break room refrigerators and microwaves.

Pay increases have helped. Bull said that since implementing salary increases and a step pay plan for veteran correctional officers in January 2022, the department has seen a consistent increase in correctional officer applications.

Still, Watkins, the head of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said more investment in staff is needed to get people to jump at the open jobs.

“If I can get a job, which, by the way, I can at a fast food restaurant — not even managing it — and make more than I can going to work being responsible for the life and well-being and, we hope, rehabilitation of a fellow human being, we’ve got a problem,” Watkins said at the October conference.

Give staff a reason to stay

Powell, who has worked for the state prison system for nearly 20 years, said he is committed to staying and retiring with the Department of Adult Correction, but long-haul employees like him are rarer today.

Instead, he sees more and more people coming in for the short term, leading to a high turnover and a drought of experience.

Dawe of One Voice United, the group representing the perspectives of correctional officers, said that prison systems need to look closer at retention problems because experience is valuable. There’s a critical difference between someone who just walked in the door as a correctional officer and someone who has been in the job for years.

“You've got to train them better so that they feel more comfortable when they're going in there and they can handle the stress better,” Dawe said. “You also need to train their families so that they understand the stresses.”

For staffing to no longer be an issue, Dawe said the correction officer jobs have to come with some type of reward.

On the very worst days, Powell said, correctional officers can have feces and urine thrown at them, can intervene in violence and can respond to medical emergencies. That’s not a load everyone can tolerate.

“We're all pitching in, but it does take a toll,” he said.

This article first appeared on North Carolina Health News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at

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