US prisons face staff shortages as officers quit amid COVID

Coronavirus

Lance Lowry, a recently retired corrections officer with the Texas State Penitentiary, holds his ID badge on the front porch of his home, Oct. 27, 2021, in Huntsville, Texas. Lowry, an officer for 20 years, became disheartened watching friends and coworkers die from COVID-19, along with dwindling support from his superiors. He left the prison system this summer for a job in long-haul trucking. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

At a Georgia state House of Representatives hearing on prison conditions in September, a corrections officer called in to testify, interrupting his shift to tell lawmakers how dire conditions had become.

On a “good day,” he told lawmakers, he had maybe six or seven officers to supervise roughly 1,200 people. He said he had recently been assigned to look after 400 prisoners by himself. There weren’t enough nurses to provide medical care.

“All the officers … absolutely despise working there,” said the officer, who didn’t give his name for fear of retaliation.

In Texas, Lance Lowry quit after 20 years as a corrections officer to become a long-haul trucker because he couldn’t bear the job any longer. Watching friends and coworkers die from COVID-19, along with dwindling support from his superiors, wore on him.

“I would have liked to stay till I was 50,” said Lowry, 48. “but the pandemic changed that.”

Staff shortages have long been a challenge for prison agencies, given the low pay and grueling nature of the work. But the coronavirus pandemic — and its impact on the labor market — has pushed many corrections systems into crisis. Officers are retiring and quitting in droves, while officials struggle to recruit new employees. And some prisons whose prisioner populations dropped during the pandemic have seen their numbers rise again, exacerbating the problem.

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