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State Prisons Are Dangerously Understaffed

Since the beginning of April, prisoner Mark Grethen had been begging for help. In letters to the Coalition for Justice in Blacksburg, he reported being bullied, threatened and beaten by his cellmate.

Eventually the state transferred him to another prison where Grethen reported security cameras and call buttons were broken.

“An officer is only there during rounds, but if something happens people have to scream their heads off to get the attention of staff,” says coalition director Margaret Breslau.

“The issue of safety doesn’t get the attention it needs, because most people don’t care what happens to prisoners. They think they get what they deserve.”

And at many prisons, she says, there is a shortage of guards, making life behind bars more dangerous.

“I’ve heard from prisoners that the ones who are most vulnerable are older prisoners and people with disabilities,” Breslau says.

Grethen was 63, suffered seizures and walked with a cane. Breslau heard drug abuse was widespread at Lawrenceville where he was imprisoned, and inmates sometimes robbed other prisoners for drug money, which may explain Grethen’s death on August third.

The Department of Corrections said it was investigating the incident as a homicide.

A few days later the department announced it had won a national award from the American Correctional Association for enhancing the well-being of inmates – a prize awarded in the past to 18 other states including Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, Texas and Tennessee,

Prisons Director Harold Clarke wants $70 million more to boost guard pay.
Virginia Department of Corrections
Prisons Director Harold Clarke wants $70 million more to boost guard pay.

but last week prisons director Harold Clarke told a legislative committee that a dire shortage of correctional officers or COs was putting lives at risk. One quarter of all jobs — 1550 — were vacant.

Because of low pay – starting at $35,000 a year, prisons director Harold Clarke said turnover was high, with officers lured away by the state police or local sheriffs who paid more.

“Our facility with the largest correctional officer turnover rate of 54% had the most serious assaults on staff, which totaled five," he told lawmakers. "Our facility with the second largest correctional officer turnover rate of 46% also had the largest number of serious assaults on inmates, which totaled six.”

He said correctional officers were being required to work extra shifts, people not fully trained as guards were hired to help out, and many C-Os were inexperienced.

Clarke added that he had just attended a national conference of of prison managers where everyone was complaining of staff shortages.

“Some states just blew my mind. They had vacancy rates of 50-52%. For example, in Florida right now they’re closing facilities because they can’t staff them.”

So he proposed raising pay to start at $45,000 a year – a change that would cost the state $70 million. He got a positive reception from State Senator Jennifer Boysko.

“There are people who work for the Department of Corrections who have been on food stamps, having to work multiple jobs and we know that the staff shortages continue to increase," she said. But Boysko suggested another way to address the problem with a smaller price tag – releasing more prisoners by reinstating parole, sending sick and elderly inmates home, and rewarding good behavior with early release.

Clarke will pitch the governor for pay hikes, and the committee will meet again to discuss other ways of assuring prison safety for inmates like Mark Grethen.

Updated: September 7, 2021 at 4:06 PM EDT
In a previous version of this story, Margaret Breslau said corrections officers had been brought in from Florida to assist with staffing. A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections says that is incorrect.
Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief