TARGET 8: Missouri corrections officers understaffed and overworked

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JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's corrections officers are some of the lowest paid in the country. That's created staff shortages, leading to mandated overtime and risky situations.

An inmate brutally attacked a corrections officer in May 2015, breaking the officer's nose, eye socket and pelvis. After undergoing physical and speech therapy- and dealing with the trauma of the incident - Judy Post remembers that night. 

"My brain said, 'Oh, this is not good, this is not going to be good,'" she said. 

Post said she was the only corrections officer working in a housing unit at Jefferson City Correctional Center (JCCC) when an inmate took advantage of short-staffing. 

"There were two of them and there was only one of me. That's a bad deal. That's a bad deal. You should never be anywhere by yourself," she said. 

According to surveillance footage of the attack, the inmate hit Post with his fist. After a struggle, the inmate threw her to the ground and her body slid across the concrete prison floor. The inmate climbed on top of Post. He continued to hit Post's face until the closest staff member could respond.

The video, maintained by the Cole County Prosecuting Attorney, shows only 20 seconds passed from the first hit to the end of the attack. In that 20 seconds, the inmate hit Post 33 times. Post said her "hero" came from the control center, four secure doors away.

"I think if we had more staff members, then, things would not get out of hand like that hopefully," she said. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Missouri ranked 49th in correctional officer and jail worker pay, coming in only above Mississippi. 

Fewer corrections officers leads to less supervision for inmates. Especially when the inmate population is rising. The offender population rose from 31,905 in 2014 to 33,253 in September 2017, according to Karen Pojmann, communications director for the Department of Corrections. 

"That situation adversely affects safety," she said.

According to data from the Missouri Department of Corrections (MODOC), assaults on staff inside Missouri prisons increased 26% from 2014 to 2018. 

Those increases include major and minor assaults toward both officers and inmates. "Major" incidents jumped 56% in the four year time span.

The department defines "major" assaults as those that cause physical injury requiring urgent medical treatment, caused a person to come into contact with bodily fluids or involved non-consensual sexual touching. 'Minor" assaults increased 10%. Those include non-serious physical injuries, any physically aggressive act or non-consensual physical contact

Data from the Missouri Corrections Officers Association (MCOA) show, during the same time, job openings for corrections officers jumped from 143 to 739. At the beginning of May, there were 791 openings, according to MODOC. 

Anne Precythe, the department of corrections director, started her job as the number of job openings started to skyrocket. She said the economy started doing well around that time and MODOC employees could find easier jobs for better pay. 

"This is not the most fabulous job people are after, but it is a really rewarding and very good job, but it has its challenges," Precythe said. "I will say that, in the state of Missouri, the pay for our corrections officer staff is extremely low and it makes it very difficult to recruit and retain good employees." 

Missouri corrections officers make about $15.00 per hour. According to the DOC, the "induction rate," or starting salary for officers is $31,288. A DOC representative said this is also "probably" the average pay.

"People don’t really get a lot of raises within that pay class," Pojmann said. 

Todd Wildhaber worked in corrections for nearly a decade. He said that amount is only attractive to young prospective employees who might not necessarily be right for the job. 

"The people that are going to show up to work and do a good job and be responsible are not going to do it for $15 an hour," Wildhaber said. 

He blames low pay and forced overtime for low morale. Precythe said overtime is necessary. 

"In order for prisons to run, I have to have people there 24/7 and with the shortages that we have, staff are struggling," she said.

According to data obtained from the MCOA, the department spent $25 million paying staff overtime. Precythe called this "an all-time high."

"Some of them are making time and a half, the benefit of the additional money is not better than what it's doing to their families, their home life," she said. 

MODOC has widened its hiring pool in hopes of attracting new staff to help with the employee shortage. 

The requirements for working as a corrections officer are listed on MODOC's website. They include: being 19 years old, having one year of work experience and a high school education. Applicants do not need a valid driver's license. 

"For comparison, the minimum age to join the military is 17,” Pojmann said.

In 2017, MODOC took a physical agility test out of the hiring process. New officers do have to pass a defensive tactics training, Pojmann said.

Wildhaber said Precythe's changes made him feel unsafe, leading him to leave corrections for good. 

"They're hiring anybody and everybody and they have no experience," he said. "I've got five children and every day I hope to go home to see my five children."

Precythe said she's trying to change the culture of corrections.

"For some people, it may not be the direction they wanted to go," she said. 

Wildhaber said low pay, short-staffing and long hours are a bad combination.

"The morale just tanked and everybody's unhappy. Tensions are high with the staff and the offenders. It's just a recipe for disaster," he said. 

Precythe said funding is the biggest obstacle for raising wages, which is what Wildhaber calls the "big factor" of the understaffing problem. 

MODOC proposed a pay plan this year, which state lawmakers approved. MODOC will consolidate two correctional centers in Cameron, Missouri, saving around $20 million. The department will save another $8 million with other changes, like a new timekeeping system, changes in the working capital revolving fund, changes in the canteen fund, and health care savings tied to the reduced offender population. Plus, the state's budget adds another $7.5 million.

Precythe said the money will go to a salary increase for all MODOC staff with more than two years with the department. The Department of Corrections hopes to retain current staff. Pojmann said the lack of raises for corrections officers is prime factor in MODOC’s pay plan. It would give DOC staff a 1% raise for every two years with the department. That's on top of a recent 3% cost of living increase for all state employees.

That now includes people who leave corrections. Those who take a “break in service,” can receive that pay raise if they come back, according to Pojmann. For instance, if someone were to work as a corrections officer for 4 years and leave that job, Pojmann said, if they come back to work in the department a few years later, they could receive the 2% for their experience.

Precythe said the plan will reduce the number of corrections officers the department needs. Closing one facility and moving the officers to others across the state will eliminate 370 job openings, according to MODOC, which helps with staffing issues. 

Post said corrections officers are needed to keep both inmates and staff safe inside prison walls. She said what happened to her should not happen to anyone else. 

"If you’re sitting on your couch, God love you, you don’t have to have somebody come in and knock you over the head in your own home," she said. 

Prosecutors charged the inmate who attacked Post with first-degree assault. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 more years in prison. 

Post tried to go back to work as a corrections officer. After one night back in the unit where she was attacked, she decided she'd had enough. Even though she cannot work in a prison anymore, she said she wants the best for those who do. 

"I’m just hoping that, if somebody hears this story, and they think about all those people that they’ve shut away in a closet, known as a prison, they’ll think about them once in a while and wish them well," she said. 

The Department of Corrections is now posting records of weekly assaults on staff on its website

(KBIA reporters Meg Cunningham and Rosie Belson, along with Columbia Missourian reporter Kaylin Burris contributed to this report.)