A critical shortage in corrections, why it puts all of us in danger

Taking Action

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — 8News has uncovered a critical shortage in the Commonwealth: Virginia is short hundreds of corrections officers.

And according to officers, it’s a threat to the public.

We’ve already seen what happens when prisons are short-staffed in neighboring North Carolina. 

911 calls captured a chaotic and frantic scene at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution that Virginia corrections officers say could happen here in the Commonwealth.

Caller:  “We got inmates trying to jump the fence.”

911 Operator:  “You’ve got inmates, how many inmates?”

Caller:  “5 inmates, five inmates.”

911 Operator: “Five inmates trying to escape.”

Caller: “Yes.”

Four prison workers including 35-year-old Justin Smith and 50-year-old Veronica Darden were killed.

Jasmine Herring, Darden’s daughter, said she lost her mom and best friend.

“She was the best person in the world.  This is the worst thing ever,” said Herring shortly after the fatal incident.

Behind prison walls the inmates launched an attack, setting fire to the facility and brutally stabbing and beating the corrections officers.

Caller:  “I don’t know if he was attacked with a hammer or screwdriver or he was attacked with something.”

911 Operator:  “Okay so you don’t know what he was attacked with?”

Caller: “No.”

It was a terrifying situation that we’re told could happen here in Virginia.

“My greatest fear is that if we don’t do something to shore up these facilities. We are going to see something like that,” says Donald Baylor.  

Baylor is the Director of Organizing for the corrections officer’s union.  He told 8News Virginia’s prisons are extremely short-staffed, putting not only corrections officer’s safety at risk but the public too.

8News obtained the vacancy rates for each prison in the Commonwealth.  

8News can see they’ve hit double digits. Some prisons, at times, down more than 30% of their staff.

“The key to maintaining safety control in a facility is to be able to observe events. When you have staff shortages and don’t have enough people on post, that breaks down,” said Baylor.

The problem is corrections is in a crisis to recruit and keep officers.

A Department of Corrections power point presentation reveals during the third quarter of 2017- 565 corrections officers were hired while 510 left.

That left a net gain of just 55 corrections officers.

“It is a situation that we all need to be concerned about,” stressed Baylor.

Working with those behind bars is already a dangerous and stressful job.

Yet that power point shows corrections officers are forced to work overtime to just cover essential posts and Baylor who has nearly 30 years of experience working inside Virginia prisons says it’s still not enough.

“In some cases, you got one person carrying the burden as many of four corrections officers.”

Staffing does matter. A federal report found staffing vacancies at Pasquotank lead to cutting corners and that created an opportunity for the deadly attack.

So far, Virginia has been lucky but as Baylor told 8News “luck has a way of running out.”

8News asked the DOC for an interview, the department declined.

We have shared our findings with lawmakers. We ask what they plan to do about. that’s coming up tomorrow on 8News at six.

Find 8News on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram; send your news tips to iReport8@wric.com.

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