The Bulletin

Virginia Department of Corrections chief paints dire picture of prison staffing

By: - August 25, 2021 4:31 pm

The perimeter of Greensville Correctional Center, which is protected by multiple layers of fencing, razor wire and guard towers. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The head of Virginia’s prison system, Harold Clarke, told lawmakers Wednesday his department is short 1,500 correctional officers, leaving essential posts unmanned and forcing remaining workers to work double shifts and come in on days off.

“We’re doing our best to manage a dire situation,” Clarke said.

His comments came during the inaugural meeting of a legislative committee tasked with studying staffing and employment conditions within the Department of Corrections, which, with more than 10,000 workers, employs more people than any other state agency.

Clarke blamed the low pay offered by the department for the hiring difficulties, a problem he said is largely concentrated in facilities in urban areas where there is more competition for employees.

The 1,500 vacancies among guards represents a quarter of all correctional officer positions — an increase of 43 percent since last summer, according to the department. Meanwhile, the turnover rate has steadily increased to 25 percent every year, while turnover rates at other state agencies have remained relatively consistent at 15 percent.

Virginia Department of Corrections announces plans to de-privatize prison health care

Clarke said the staffing shortfalls have not risen to the level of needing to shut down facilities or stop accepting inmates, but said the situation has made facilities less safe because remaining staff work longer hours, impairing performance and lowering attention rates.

Even with drafting, in which corrections officers are mandated to stay and work a second shift and come in on days off, 404 posts the department considers essential remain unfilled every day, Clarke said. He said that amounts to 17 percent of positions.

Clarke said he’s made repeated requests for increased funding to both Gov. Ralph Northam and General Assembly leaders. His latest proposal would raise starting salaries for correctional officers from $35,000 a year to $44,000 a year, with commensurate increases for those already working for the department.

He put the total cost of the plan at $70 million, which would be a more than five percent increase to the department’s $1.3 billion annual operating budget.

“We know where our staff are going, and those places are paying more than we are paying,” Clarke said, noting Virginia State Police now start troopers at $47,000 a year and most regional jails and sheriff’s offices start officers at more than $40,000 a year.

Members of the committee, which is helmed by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, and Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, said they would continue meeting and set out rough plans to survey Department of Corrections employees directly.

Some members of the committee worried that morale issues went beyond simply low pay — a point Clarke acknowledged in his hour-long remarks, saying the department is working on addressing complaints about poor management internally.

“We can throw money at this problem, but if it doesn’t help, what have we solved?” Hope said.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.