Low staffing at prisons in Colorado leads to unsustainable working conditions

Prison staff and those behind bars feel the impacts of vacancies at federal and state level

By: - January 3, 2023 5:00 am

The visitors parking lot of the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, a state prison within the Colorado Department of Corrections, taken on Feb. 6, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

High job vacancy rates have plagued many industries since the onset of the pandemic almost three years ago, but for those working in corrections, being understaffed can quickly lead to being overworked in a stressful and potentially dangerous environment. 

At both federal and state prisons in Colorado, recruiting and retaining staff across the board has been difficult for several years. Because of the vacancies, those assigned to work other posts throughout the prisons often get forced into security shifts simply out of necessity. Most staff also ends up working mandatory overtime because prisons must meet a minimum staffing level to function.

Anyone who works in a prison is trained to work a security shift. This means behavioral health specialists, case managers, social workers and teachers can be pulled from their primary responsibilities to work as a correctional officer, leaving those who are incarcerated with less opportunities for activity and rehabilitation. 

Federal prisons in Colorado

John Butkovich is president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1169, which represents about 640 members employed at the Florence Federal Correctional Complex in Florence. He said even when program staff are pulled to work a security shift, they still have other responsibilities for their primary job to tend to, which quickly leads to burnout. 

A turning point in the staffing difficulties was the federal hiring freeze former President Donald Trump implemented in 2017. Butkovich said this stopped all of the applicants in the pipeline to work for the Bureau of Prisons, and it’s created a snowball effect since.

He said hiring has improved slightly under the Biden administration. FCC Florence had about 180 new hires in 2022, according to Butkovich, but it also saw about 100 employees leave. He said the Bureau of Prisons will remove positions that previously existed to make the vacancy rates look lower.

“Staffing was so bad that in the fiscal year 2022, Florence had a budget of $3.1 million for overtime and paid out $6.8 million,” Butkovich said. He said the federal prison in Englewood has the same staffing issues Florence does too. 

A spokesperson with the BOP’s North Central Regional Office said improving the staffing situation at both FCC Florence and the Englewood Federal Correctional Institution is a top priority for the bureau. 

“Despite continued recruitment efforts, 2022 hiring across the agency has been a challenge, as the BOP is faced with the same worker shortage experienced by employers throughout the country,” the spokesperson said in an email. “The BOP has implemented a robust national recruitment strategy to ensure constant recruitment efforts and to facilitate a pipeline of applicants throughout the year.”

Staffing was so bad that in the fiscal year 2022, Florence had a budget of $3.1 million for overtime and paid out $6.8 million.

– John Butkovich, of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1169

The bureau also said that following ongoing work with an outside consultant, it is making changes to the overtime reporting process, focusing more on employee groups at a higher risk of leaving, and continuously evaluating opportunities for recruitment and retention incentives. 

“The BOP is addressing the institutional climate and communications at both FCC Florence & FCI Englewood, providing additional training to staff, making security improvements at the facilities, and continuing to recruit additional high-quality staff,” the spokesperson said. “Working with the consultant allowed us to spend time as an agency thinking about how we see ourselves and how we want to project that image out into the world.”

Earlier in December, Colorado’s U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper called on the White House to increase wages and improve working conditions at FCC Florence. The senators helped secure a 25% retention bonus for correctional officers at the facility in July, but only a 10% retention bonus for non-custody staff like educators and counselors. This means that as soon as someone signs on to work for the BOP, they get that percentage of their salary up front. The two senators support the AFGE Local 1169’s goal of seeing this raised to 25% for all FCC Florence staff. 

“This essential Bureau of Prisons workforce and their representative union have raised concerns about low pay, forced overtime, and dangerous working conditions that have exacerbated low morale, high attrition, and an inability to recruit and hire sufficient staff,” Bennet and Hickenlooper said in their letter.

Butkovich said pay is one of the biggest issues impacting poor retention, and the 10% retention bonus for non-custody staff has proved to be ineffective. At a federal facility in Thomson, Illinois, 25% bonuses were instituted for everyone, and the facility hasn’t seen the level of staffing issues Florence has, he said . 

“When you’re starting out without these retentions, you’re making poverty level wages,” Butkovich said. “The pay dividends are just inconsistent across the board, and this retention is the only thing seeming to send that off.”

Another key issue for Florence, as is the case in many rural Colorado communities, is the cost of housing. Butkovich said southern Colorado is starting to approach Denver when it comes to housing prices, and without the extra incentive, qualified candidates can’t afford to relocate to Florence without a higher bonus. 

A view of the entrance to the Florence Federal Correctional Complex. (Google Maps)

John Holbrooks is a correctional counselor in Florence. He usually works to make sure inmates’ daily needs are met. This includes approving phone calls, arranging legal visits, calls and mail, and other basic operations that keep the incarcerated population connected to the outside world. But, given the staffing issues, he regularly gets pulled to fill in as a correctional officer. 

Prior to 2017, Holbrooks said people would only need to be pulled from their assigned position once in a while when officers had to leave for training. They also typically had a backlog of extra officers to fill in if someone took time off work. But Holbrooks said pulling non-custody staff has become “a year-round necessity.” 

“The reason why the administration started doing this is they did not like to have to pay out the overtime,” Holbrooks said. “So why pay the overtime when you can just pull somebody out of their position and have them fill in as a correctional officer for the day?”

Recently, Holbrooks said an operational review found some discrepancies in his typical role as a counselor, so now he needs to go into work on a day off to make changes and fix the discrepancies. He’ll be paid time and a half for this, but he said the only reason these discrepancies exist is because he keeps getting pulled away from his desk to work correctional officer shifts. 

“I don’t want to say it’s a dangerous thing to do because we’re all trained to do the (correctional officer) job,” Holbrooks said. “However, if we’re not doing the job every day, five days a week, we tend to not understand or know the inmates as well as a correctional officer does, so it makes it a little more challenging for those staff that are not in that position every day.”

State prison staffing isn’t much different

Hilary Glasgow is the executive director of Colorado Workers for Innovative and New Solutions — better known as Colorado WINS, the union that represents more than 24,000 state employees. This includes 4,526 state Department of Corrections employees such as correctional officers, case managers, teachers and administrative assistants. The state is also short-staffed within corrections, which Glasgow said is common throughout the industry. 

How the short staffing plays out at the state level is similar to Colorado’s federal prisons: forced overtime and staff being pulled from other positions to fill in as a correctional officer. 

“When we have people working multiple overtime shifts, we have people getting into car accidents and getting killed or paralyzed on their way home from those double shifts,” Glasgow said. “So it affects people not just in the facility, but when they leave the facility too.”

In November, a state correctional officer died after driving home from an overnight shift at the Limon Correctional Facility. The officer’s family is now suing the Department of Corrections, saying his work schedule contributed to his death. 

In speaking with a mental health organization specifically for correctional officers, Glasgow said she’s learned about correctional officer exhaustion and how much the job impacts an officer’s personality. She said this only gets worse when working conditions are poor and everyone is burned out from forced overtime. 

“Corrections has an impact on people that I don’t think they expect when they’re going in,” Glasgow said. “If you think about it, it’s not just the incarcerated population that has the gate closed behind them when they walk in.”

When we have people working multiple overtime shifts, we have people getting into car accidents and getting killed or paralyzed on their way home from those double shifts. So it affects people not just in the facility, but when they leave the facility too.

– Hilary Glasgow, executive director of Colorado WINS

According to a DOC spokesperson, there are 1,675 vacancies across the department, which includes all positions, not just correctional staff. The spokesperson said facility safety, hiring and retention are top priorities — but the current job market has made it “incredibly challenging to recruit and retain staff.” 

“The Department is utilizing every option within our power, including recruiting people from other parts of the U.S. and holding fast track hiring events where people receive a job offer the same day, as well as other strategies including reducing the hiring age from 21 to 18, and adjusting operations where possible,” the spokesperson said in an email.

The department also is using retention incentives for current staff, new hires, staff who make referrals leading to a new hire, and those who relocate throughout Colorado to improve staffing. The incentive programs the state currently uses will be in place through June. But, as with the federal jobs, incentives at the state are also higher for correctional officer positions compared to non-correctional officer roles. 

Newly hired correctional officers receive a $4,500 incentive bonus, while all other positions that regularly report to a facility get $3,250. The current staff retention bonus is $4,000 for correctional officers, as well as non-custody staff like teachers and case managers who get moved to a long-term correctional officer role. Everyone else gets a $1,000 bonus.

Carla Woods is a state correctional officer in the Denver metro area and has worked with the DOC for over seven years and is active with Colorado WINS. She said the staffing situation within the department has only worsened since she started, and the forced overtime has “shattered a lot of people’s lives.” She said the DOC “doesn’t take care of its people” and that they’re deceptive when bringing in new staff members about what it’s actually like to work in the department.

“What they’re doing is playing Russian roulette with our lives, and the offenders are not getting what they need to progress and be productive citizens and be able to function out here in the world because the teachers and everything else, they’re not teaching,” Woods said. 

Woods said she doesn’t see how the DOC is fulfilling its mission of keeping citizens safe if its employees are half asleep on the job. She said she’s seen coworkers who are exhausted with bloodshot eyes be held for additional shifts. Woods said she sees older people who have been with the DOC for years retiring, while the younger staffers don’t tolerate the conditions for long and leave. 

“We keep telling them if you pay somebody enough money, you will get good, solid people that will stay on the job,” Woods said. “You won’t have all these people going in and out of the door. There’s so many new people, I don’t know a fraction of them.”

What they're doing is playing Russian roulette with our lives, and the offenders are not getting what they need to progress and be productive citizens and be able to function out here in the world because the teachers and everything else, they’re not teaching.

– Carla Woods, state correctional officer

Glasgow said she sees the situation improving, though, especially since Colorado WINS negotiated the first ever collective bargaining agreement with the state in 2021. She is also confident the new interim director of the DOC will work with her members to improve the quality of jobs and services provided in prisons.

The union is starting conversations with the state Legislature about increasing wages, and Glasgow said legislators understand how dire the need is for more staff and increased pay. She also wants to see a longevity pay step plan put in place. 

“Employees receive no additional income for having spent 20 years at the state, and so we’re dealing with a fair amount of compression,” Glasgow said. “Because we have to recruit people, they come in at a rate that ends up being sometimes higher, or equal to, or right below someone who has been there 10 years … It’s really demoralizing. Why plan out a career with a place when you can’t calculate what you’re going to make in 10 years?”

Impacts of staffing issues on the incarcerated

While those employed at the prisons are first to feel the effects of forced overtime and low staffing, those living within prisons in Colorado don’t get opportunities for services, rehabilitation and programming when these employees are constantly being moved around. 

Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said she’s concerned about the quality of life for people inside correctional facilities because of the limited staffing. She said this is a chronic problem rather than a situational one, impacting corrections departments across the U.S. 

“Have we gotten to a place where people aren’t getting the care they need and we’re just warehousing them because there’s no staff to do the programming?” Donner said. “What impact does that have on the staff that work in prisons with the intention of providing programs who are now no longer doing that?”

With the prison population also rising again following the peak of the pandemic, Donner said the negative impacts will only continue to get worse. One potential option she sees for improvement is to downsize the prison population so the ratio fits the available staffing, given the amount of inmates eligible for parole. 

Have we gotten to a place where people aren't getting the care they need and we're just warehousing them because there's no staff to do the programming?

– Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition

Butkovich said that in a prison consistency is key, and that’s hard to achieve when there are new faces in the correctional officer positions every day. Educational and recreational opportunities for inmates are severely limited when these staff members get pulled from their post to fill in as a correctional officer.

“You want to see the inmates get out, have access to programs, keep their minds occupied and keep them doing something, and sometimes it’s just not available,” Butkovich said. 

Holbrooks also said the dynamic staffing situation means programming requirements under the First Step Act — which allows eligible inmates to earn reduced sentences for participation in recidivism reduction programs and activities — aren’t being met, with people being pulled from their roles every day.

“We’re trying to get these guys rehabilitated and released, but we’re pulling everybody out of these positions to back those officers, so we can actually get them their programming.”

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Lindsey Toomer
Lindsey Toomer

Lindsey Toomer covers politics, social justice and other stories for Newsline. She formerly reported on city government at the Denver Gazette and on Colorado mountain town government, education and environment at the Summit Daily News. Toomer graduated from the Pennsylvania State University, where she also served as managing editor of The Daily Collegian, with degrees in journalism and global studies.

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