RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — We have to do something- that is what lawmakers are saying after 8News exposed high turnover and low staffing at prisons around the Commonwealth.
8News found corrections officers are forced to work overtime and sometimes covering the posts of three to four people.
“This is unheard of especially now with all the prison outbreaks that you hear across the country. We certainly have to do something to address this problem,” said Delegate Roslyn Tyler when we shared our findings.
Tyler who is on the House Public Safety Committee admits staffing at our state prisons is a problem.
She has five correctional facilities in her district alone including Greensville Correctional Center where some of the state’s most hardened violent criminals are housed.
“If you think of prison outbreaks you know that could be detrimental to our communities,” says Tyler.
The community surrounding at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in neighboring North Carolina knows that to be true. A federal report found staffing vacancies there led to a deadly prison attack last year.
Here in Virginia, 8News found vacancy rates for corrections officers are in the double digits.
Del. Michael Mullin of the 93rd District says, “That’s a dangerous situation for us to be in.”
Delegate Mullin, who is also a prosecutor, says part of the problem comes down to money.
“I think a lot of the reason for this turnover is because of the low starting salaries,” says Mullin.
The average salary for a corrections officer in Virginia according to the Department of Corrections is $35,393.
However, the national average for these officers who put their lives on the line is $47,600.
“They are dealing with a very dangerous population of people. We are not protecting those people who are protecting us,” says Mullin.
In fairness lawmakers have taken some action, they just approved a raise of $2016 for corrections combined with a 2% increase for all state employees.
Yet our 8News calculations show even with that extra cash- corrections officers will still make $9443 below than the national average.
“Right now the General Assembly needs to be doing more,” says Mullin.
“I think this year we are making strives in the right directions,” says Tyler.
Yet here’s the thing, this isn’t a new problem.
Corrections officers have been sounding the alarm about under-staffing for years.
8News has obtained a copy of a presentation made to lawmakers back in 2014 warning of high turnover.
8News found a 2017 document shared with members of the General Assembly showing the Department of Corrections lost more than 6,000 corrections officers in just five years.
“This has been a problem for years,” admitted Tyler.
Yet, Tyler and Mullin believe it’s got their attention now.
“This isn’t just a fairness issue, this is not just a financial issue, this is a safety issue,” said Mullin.
Mullin told 8News he expects Governor Ralph Northam will introduce legislation to help close the pay gap.
The Department of Corrections declined a request for an interview but tells us they will ask for funding for raises again next year.