The 1,800 government-run prisons in the U.S. are struggling with an acute staffing shortage that state officials say is fueling violence against corrections officers and worsening conditions for inmates, the Wall Street Journal reports. In April, five guards were assaulted and one killed by inmates at two prisons in North Carolina, where one out of six corrections officer positions is unfilled. In South Carolina, four inmates were strangled to death by other prisoners in April at a maximum-security prison, where two officers were guarding a dorm with 140 inmates. Nebraska, whose 10 prisons are at 160 percent capacity, has stepped up recruiting, but struggles to retain the people it hires. “They’re leaving faster than they’re coming in,” said Doug Koebernick, the inspector general of corrections. “When you have a staffing crisis, they end up working overtime, they get tired, frustrated, and it’s a vicious cycle.” Declining national unemployment has made it harder for prisons to retain guards in jobs that commonly pay less than that of an hourly employee at Wal-Mart.
State legislators prioritize education or tax cuts over prisons, which has meant corrections officers in states such as Arizona haven’t seen a significant raise in nearly a decade. From 2000 to 2016, corrections budgets nationwide grew slower than overall state spending, says the National Association of State Budget Officers. The U.S. prison population hit a 10-year low in 2015, with 1.5 million inmates under the control of state and federal correctional authorities. Declining inmate populations have left prisons with a higher concentration of violent felons, making the low-paying job even more dangerous. Florida corrections director Julie Jones said in March that she cannot guarantee the safety of the state’s corrections officers or the inmates. “You’ve got it going both ways, an increase in violent population and a decrease in staff,” said Brian Dawe of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network advocacy group. “It’s open season on us behind those walls right now.”