More than a third of new hires in 2017 left before the year was up. The culture is the problem, former officers say.
Thirty-eight percent of the correctional officers hired by the Arkansas Department of Correction in 2017 have left the department. Whether the 313 guards quit or were fired is unknown; the ADC does not differentiate the reason for dismissal in aggregated data.
The department hired a total of 819 new officers in 2017. The high turnover rate for new guards continued, despite a July pay raise that was aimed at shoring up vacancies. The pay raise seemed to have an impact. In July, the ADC hired 183 new staffers, far more than any other month last year. But it did not last. On average, 35 more employees left the department than were hired from August to December per month in 2017.
By December, the department had 712 vacancies, more than at any other point last year.
The ADC employs nearly 3,900, according to state records updated Jan. 2, paying more than $140 million in annual salaries and wages. But the departure of many new employees, along with the 1,067 people terminated in 2017 from ADC overall, has created a massive and costly churn.
According to ADC, there are 450 guard positions vacant, representing 21 percent of the officer staff. Officers are working overtime across units — often shuttling to the Varner Unit, which is severely understaffed. The department has blamed a series of violent incidents on vacancies.
In July, ADC raised the starting officer wage from $12.89 to $13.96 plus an additional 6 percent for hazard pay for all employees, no matter the assignment. At the maximum security units, there were additional hazard pay bumps on top of that: 6 percent for correctional officers at Cummins, East Arkansas Regional, Tucker Maximum Security Unit and 10 percent for Varner.
In a large purple banner stuck in front of the Cummins and Varner Unit on U.S. Highway 65, the ADC advertises starting officer salary as $14.92 an hour.
The legislature’s Joint Budget Committee has endorsed a proposed spending plan for the ADC that includes $1.9 million to pay for overtime for guards.
In justifying the need to funnel more money into overtime to legislators, ADC director Wendy Kelley told the committee that the problem with officer turnover is “largely” the job market. “When the economy is good, then people can find a job,” she said. Kelley also blamed media reports of violence.
But, after the inability to retain guards despite an increase in pay, she said the ADC would be working to bolster the retention rate in other ways, too. Solomon Graves, spokesman for the department, said the department would look into changing the training academy and creating an employee wellness committee. “The department is committed to reducing our current vacancy rate by focusing more on retention,” he said.
Former guards told the Arkansas Times they’re not surprised that a pay raise didn’t help retain guards. They also said that the department should’ve been focusing on employee wellness sooner.
“The pay is fantastic,” said Christina Hall, a former sergeant at the East Arkansas Unit in Brickeys (Lee County) — especially compared to other employment options, mostly minimum wage, in the rural areas where the state builds prisons. “There’s nothing out here,” she said.
The problem, said Hall, who quit last year, was an internal culture and administration that ignores the realities of being a correctional officer.
At the training academy, Hall said ADC presents a rose-colored version of being a guard that is “not the way that things work within the unit.” Guards, in the absence of adequate training, create their own standards of behavior, she said.
Sergeants are not given enough time to review inmate grievances, Hall said, and while some sergeants take the grievances home for review, many more, she said, just toss the inmate grievances into the trash. She remembered often calling for backup only to have no support come and being told to treat violence in the prison as if it was normal. “If you’re too scared to do the job, they’re going to tell you to leave,” she said.
Hall and other guards describe a hectic workplace where criticism of standard practice is treated with hostility — both by inmates and other guards.
“If you ‘snitch’ on anything, it can be the smallest thing, it’s a death sentence,” Hall said.
“You’re down there by yourself,” said Malik Appleby, who also worked at East Arkansas Regional before being fired for bringing in drugs, according to a dismissal file (a charge he denies). “I was in danger for the whole 12 hours.”
Appleby claimed the pay was “the main attraction of the job.” But, he said, “after having urine [thrown] in my face three times in a day, and then having supervisors not care — instead telling him to “come do paperwork and get back to work” — his patience grew thin.
“The money was good. But for somebody to actually like doing their job? No,” Appleby said. “[They need] better supervisors … . It’s a great job. It doesn’t make sense for the turnover rate to be the way it is.” Appleby thought it’d be hard to pay someone enough to make the work worthwhile, but changes in the culture could help.
“Individuals resign their employment for a variety of reasons,” Graves said of the poor retention rate. “The improved economy and resulting low unemployment allows more employment opportunities for everyone. Additionally, it takes a uniquely courageous individual, with a professional demeanor, to be a correctional officer. While not every officer resigns because of pay, every individual has a responsibility to provide for themselves and their families to the best of their ability.”
Dr. Caterina G. Spinaris, executive director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and an authority on correctional officer wellness, told the Times that “a sense of being abandoned by their administration” is common among correctional officers.
“It’s a very, very demanding job,” she said. “[They’re] often understaffed, outnumbered; [they] have to think quickly on their feet and have to deal with a bunch of personalities.” Spinaris listed the many roles officers have to perform while adhering to hundreds of protocols: security, custody personnel, first responders, role models, educators. “It’s probably the most challenging job I can think of and also underpaid,” she said. While starting pay is $13.96 an hour in Arkansas — which might be a lot for the rural areas where prisons are located — “guards are paying with their lives,” Spinaris said. Correctional officers have increased rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and obesity. Unless paid exorbitant amounts of money compared to most state employees, Spinaris told the Times, “correctional officers, especially early on, they’ll say, ‘Forget it; it’s not worth it.’ ”
Spinaris has a term for the toll of the emotional and physical factors that weigh on officers over a career: “corrections fatigue.” She said if a department does not actively look to aid guards, it can “leak into the culture — enough people are affected and the whole place is contaminated.”
ADC Director Wendy Kelley pointed out to legislators that there are nationwide problems in prison staffing. She mentioned West Virginia, which has had to call in the National Guard to deal with shortages. That state’s turnover rate for guards who were hired and left within fiscal year 2017 was 36 percent, a few points lower than Arkansas’s for calendar year 2017, according to a spokesperson. There are many others: Louisiana’s vacancy rate for guards is above 10 percent, according to data from the department; Nebraska launched a series of wellness initiatives in 2017 to deal with a 32 percent turnover rate; Mississippi in October 2017 shut down units and moved 400 prisoners because of staffing. The few states able to retain correctional officers, Spinaris said, have powerful unions, like California.
Arkansas lawmakers have been concerned about spending on prisons — passing legislation in 2017 to bring down one of the highest incarceration rates in the country at 591 prisoners for every 100,000 state residents — and Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) has often asked ADC what the department needs to retain officers. She’s pestered Kelley to look beyond increased wages.
“I kept pushing on that question: ‘Are you sure it’s salary?’ ” Elliott said in an interview. “Because, oftentimes, when you have that kind of chaos and that kind of turnover there’s something wrong with the working conditions and the work environment itself.”
Elliott, who chairs the legislature’s Charitable, Penal, and Correctional Institutions committee, said the high turnover rate is “highly unfortunate, and it isn’t surprising.” She gets complaints from officers throughout the state. “I think there needs to be an anonymous way for the workforce to let the director, and other leadership, know about problems,” she said. “Most of them are afraid to come forward in identifiable way and express what’s going on without worrying about some kind of backlash.”
“There’s something systemically at odds here. It just seems to me willful blindness not to understand that the work environment, the culture must be part of the problem,” she said. “I think this is something much bigger than money.”