RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-The Virginia Department of Corrections says their officers are underpaid, overworked and understaffed. That’s causing safety concerns at state prisons.

On Wednesday, the Joint Committee to Study Staffing Levels, Employment Conditions, and Compensation at the Virginia Department of Corrections met for the first time for a deep dive on what’s causing the problem.

The goal is to come up with solutions for the General Assembly to act upon in the 2022 regular session.

While this group of state lawmakers and stakeholders is new, Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) said the staffing shortage at VADOC isn’t.

“I think it is something that has gotten worse and something that the General Assembly needs to commit to taking action to resolve,” Hope said. “I think people like to let them operate with as little money as possible but I don’t think that is the right thing to do.”

As of July 2021, roughly a quarter of all correctional officer positions were unfilled, with 1,550 vacancies, according to VADOC Director Harold Clarke’s presentation. Clarke said that’s a 43 percent increase compared to July 2020.

Clarke said vacancies are driving a viscous cycle of mandatory overtime, low morale and high turnover, resulting in a largely inexperienced workforce. He said that is leading to impaired performance, lowered attention, increased errors and higher safety risks.

Clarke said some officers are working a second job to make ends meet. Meanwhile, he said other law enforcement agencies with higher salaries, such as regional jails and sheriff’s office, are actively recruiting state correctional officers.

To compete, Clarke is asking the General Assembly to increase starting salaries for correctional officers from $35,000 to $44,000 annually. The plan includes a raise for entry level probation and parole officers from a little under $40,000 to $45,000 annually.

Clarke is also hoping to address salary compression issues by creating more incremental pay increases for officers based on years of service and proportional raises for supervisors.

The total price tag of the plan is roughly $75 million.

But some lawmakers were skeptical of pouring that much money into the prison system just as Democrats are implementing policies to reduce the inmate population.

State Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) said various reforms should allow VADOC to operate with less staff.

“I think $75 million is too high of a price tag. When we start looking at the entire DOC population, in my opinion it should decrease if we engage in compassionate release, geriatric release and early release because of COVID,” Morrissey said.

Clarke argued the agency has to plan for the situation they are in now.

Clarke added, when officers are stretched thin, it takes resources away from rehabilitative programs necessary to prevent recidivism.

We reduce services and we become a warehousing entity instead of one focused on public safety,” Clarke said. “We are making due with what we have but we could do better.”

Before any additional resources are recommended, multiple members of the committee said they want to hear from officers directly about why people are leaving in such large numbers.

Donald Baylor with the Virginia Chapter of the National Coalition of Public Safety Officers said some have raised concerns about retaliation if they speak out. Baylor said VADOC reinforced that message when it instructed officers to check with their supervisors before opening up to members of the committee.

“I’m convinced that, until we hear directly from the people who are actually going into the facilities and taking the post…we cannot address the whole issue because we don’t know the whole issue,” Baylor said.

Clarke said VADOC employees are encouraged to participate in the discussion.