SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — The number of prison guards being hired in Missouri is on the rise, but they aren’t new jobs. They are mostly replacing corrections officers who are quitting the job. Low pay and dangerous situations may be behind it and the same seems to be true for county jails.
“I have some that have been here 8 [years], but I also have a bunch of them that won’t make it but just a few months,” said Webster County Sheriff Roye Cole.
The Webster County jail employs from 12 to 18 jailers at a time who oversee anywhere from 45 to 65 inmates a day.
“We are actually housed to have 35 inmates,” said Cole. “It’s a dangerous environment to begin with, and, of course, overcrowding multiplies that.”
Sheriff Cole says a high turnover rate makes running the jail more dangerous.
“When we hire police officers they have six months of police academy. When we hire people to work in the jail, they come from civilian backgrounds and don’t understand, not just the physical violence aspect of it, but some of the games that [inmates] tend to play,” he said.
The turnover rate for prisons in the state is on the rise. Last year it was at 23 percent.
“I’m certain that it’s at least that high or maybe higher this year,” said Gary Gross, the executive director of Missouri Corrections Officers Association.
About 1,200 corrections officers are hired every year.
“There’s the very limited few in there because people have been promoted or retired, but the majority of it is because people are quitting,” said Gross.
He says Missouri corrections officers are the lowest paid in the nation, earning about $30,000 a year. The national average is around $38,000.
“We would like to someday get to that level, it would certainly help retain staff,” said Gross.
In a small county like Webster, a jail staffer starts just above $20,000 and in two years can go up to $28,000.
Getting paid too little for the type of danger they face every day are some of the reasons many leave the job.
“We have officers assaulted in some form almost daily,” said Gross. “Some people just can’t deal with the environment. Money is not the only reason people quit, but it’s certainly part of it.”
Whether they at a county jail or correctional facility, Sheriff Cole says their work goes unappreciated.
“Given the risk that they take and the time involved and just the difficulty of the job, I think that’s an area in law enforcement that we’ve neglected,” he said.