‘I left because of the stress’: Critical shortage of corrections officers raising safety concerns

Taking Action

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Corrections officers are speaking out and raising more disturbing concerns about safety and security inside Virginia prisons.

Since 8News exposed high turnover and low staffing at prisons around the Commonwealth is putting all of us in danger, 8News has been inundated with calls and emails from former and current corrections officers.

A former corrections officer who has asked to remain not to be identified told 8News it was never the prisoners she was afraid of.

“I left because of the stress,” she explained.

She spent six months studying handbooks, policy, procedure along with physical training to pursue her dream to serve and become a corrections officer.

She graduated the academy with honors, but walked away from it just seven months in.

“It was the staff and the culture surrounding my experience,” she said.

An 8News investigation recently found the vacancy rates for corrections officers are in the double digits, and as a result, some officers are having to man the posts of 3 or 4 people.  

The officer who worked at a women’s correctional center tells us sometimes they were so short staffed there was no one working the main entrance.

“I would arrive to the front gate in the morning and there wouldn’t be an officer there because there weren’t enough people. There weren’t enough people at all,” she claims.

In an email, a corrections officer currently working at the Marion Correctional Treatment Center revealed that The Department of Corrections is taking extreme measures to deal with the shortage. They say DOC is assigning officers to prisons they’re not familiar with in an effort to cover critical gaps.

The officer writes:

“… We are asked to travel six hours up the road to spend seven days away from our families to help cover Sussex II state prison and their shortage when we are short also … “

Staffing is not the only safety concern 8News is learning about. We’re told security cameras at some state prisons aren’t working.

“They’ll put in these work orders and there’s a backlog of three months, four months.” the former corrections officer explained.

The Department of Corrections again declined our requests for an interview, but in an email a DOC spokesperson says,

“All front entries are staffed appropriately. We have many cameras, monitored daily. If one goes down, we do a work order to get it fixed/replaced.” 

She did not tell us how long it takes for a camera to get repaired. 

We shared the alarming claims with Donald Baylor, the Director of Organizing for the Corrections Officer’s union. He spoke to 8News in our initial report and backs what the officers are telling us.

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

Baylor tells 8News many officers don’t speak up because they fear retaliation for talking.

One former corrections officer says if she cited policy or questioned procedure, her superiors used intimidation tactics to silence her.

“When the people that you are trusting to train you in areas cornering you where security cameras cannot see and they are using interrogation tactics where you are physically lower than them and they are yelling at you, it doesn’t make for a very good environment,” the former corrections officer said.

That kind of culture, combined with low pay, is why this former corrections officer believes the DOC is seeing such high turnover.

“They’re treated poorly, they’re not earning much and it’s just too much to handle,” she says.

8News found the average starting salary for a corrections officer in Virginia is about $9.000 dollars less than the national average, and that’s with a recently approved raise.

Another corrections officer writes 8News: 

“Corrections has been the ugly stepchild of the state for far too long and our compensation and lack of raises proves this fact.”

8News has also learned that raises approved by the General Assembly don’t take effect until next year.

An officer writes in an email, “Our turn over is now, the problem is now.”

“I tried very hard and I wanted it so badly but they made it very difficult,” adds the former corrections officer.

Department of Corrections spokesperson Lisa Kinney tells us they take allegations about supervisors seriously and employees are encouraged to speak out and use the employee grievance process.

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