Tennessee prisons face nearly half vacancy rate


NASHVILLE – Tennessee officials are considering a new round of salary increases to attract and retain correctional officers in 10 state-run prisons where nearly half of the positions are now vacant.

During state budget hearings this month, Tennessee Department of Corrections Commissioner Tony Parker formally submitted a budget request to Governor Bill Lee, asking for an additional $ 15.86 million for salaries for existing correctional officers and, officials hope, new ones.

It includes the increase in the annual starting compensation for new correctional officers from $ 32,524 to $ 37,654. If officers stay, their salary will drop to $ 39,541 in the second year.

It comes as Tennessee, other states and local prisons have come under pressure to raise wages to stem a wave of outgoing correctional officers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Comparable or similar jobs with other public organizations at the local, state or federal level often pay more. And the private sector, which also has difficulty retaining or hiring workers, is willing to pay new ones for better paying and often less difficult or dangerous jobs.

“Over the past 18 to 24 months, we have encountered considerable difficulty in hiring and retaining correctional officers in our prisons,” Parker told the governor during the agency’s budget hearing on Nov. 4.

Parker said counterpart agencies in Tennessee were reporting an average starting salary of $ 38,400. Among them is the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, which is offering $ 38,000, Parker said.

“And private companies have also drastically increased wages because of the difficulties in attracting workers nationwide,” Parker said.

The latest Tennessee prison vacancy rate for correctional officers is 46.8%, which represents 1,141 positions. While the state government operates 10 prisons, Tennessee also contracts directly or indirectly with the for-profit Nashville-based prison company CoreCivic, which operates four Tennessee prisons.

The hardest hit in terms of actual vacancies is the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, Lake County, with 197 vacancies representing 59.5% of the correctional officer workforce.

In percentage terms, the Deborah K. Johnson Rehabilitation Center, a diagnostic center for women entering the correctional system, was No.1 at 61.4%. But the actual number of vacancies was nearly two-thirds – 70 vacancies – compared to Northwest’s nearly 200 vacancies.

“Governor, I’ll be honest,” Parker said, “the request for a raise, while I originally made it, I’m not sure it will be enough. I thought it would make us competitive in the market. of the work that we have today in the state. “

Lee has shown an interest in criminal justice issues for years when he mentored a young offender as part of a church group initiative. He asked Parker what happened with the state’s previous salary increases two years ago.

The state has increased starting salaries for correctional officers by about 20%, from $ 27,000 to $ 32,500, Parker said. This helped the department increase staff by 9%, but proved to be short-lived. From March 2020 to March 2021, the vacancy rate rose to 19%. In response to “hiring difficulties,” the state implemented a $ 5,000 hiring bonus and a $ 1,000 retention bonus to boost recruitment, Parker said.

“However, the impact on our hiring has been marginal,” he said.

“The signing bonus had no impact? Lee asked.

“Very little,” Parker said. “I thought it would help us tremendously. To be honest with you, Governor, we’ve seen a marginal and marginal response to this. I was very surprised.”

The future ex-commissioner – he has since held a post that began in January with the Knoxville-based nonprofit 4th Purpose Foundation – noted that the State Department of Correction competes with the Police Department. of Memphis, which offers a $ 15,000 signing bonus, as well as the state of Virginia, which offers the same amount to correctional officers.

Lee’s COO Brandon Gibson asked Parker if the state wouldn’t face the same problem if the $ 15.8 million request was granted. While this would increase Tennessee salary to Virginia correctional salary, “do we know we would be able to fix the problem?”

(READ MORE: State outpatient program that offers criminals intensive counseling, training instead of jail may expand to Hamilton County)

Parker said when he first made the request that he thought it was “adequate to improve the situation we were in at that time. At this point, I don’t know if that will resolve. totally the problem I don’t know I think we have to be competitive in the job market.

Finance Commissioner Butch Eley said looking at other states may not be the answer, noting “you have to be competitive for the market you are in”.

Against competition

Tennessee faces wage pressures for prison officers not only from the federal government, but also from the state’s four largest counties, including Hamilton County. Here’s how junior correctional officers’ paychecks accumulate.

Federal Bureau of Prisons: $ 43,500.

Davidson County Sheriff’s Department: $ 38,300.

Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department: $ 38,000.

Shelby County Sheriff’s Department: $ 37,200.

Knox County Sheriff’s Department: $ 35,000.

Source: Tennessee Corrections Department

Parker noted that in northwest Tennessee, the Lake County state facility is set to compete for workers with a new solar farm set to open and Ford Motor Co. has announced. a $ 5.6 billion F-Series electric truck and battery production plant in Haywood County, western Tennessee. . It is expected to employ some 5,800 people.

“Corrections is an important and vital role for the state of Tennessee,” Parker said. “It serves an important purpose for public safety. We have to become competitive. And money isn’t everything, is it? I understand that. There are other leadership opportunities and things in which we have to get in. But if we’re not competitive in this job market today, we can’t hire people.

Senator Todd Gardenhire, a Republican from Chattanooga and chairman of the Legislative Assembly Tax Review Committee, said in a telephone interview on Monday that lawmakers had “constantly heard” over the past few years of a shortage of employed in state prisons, especially among the lowest paid workers. , with some overtime hours and others even without additional remuneration. “It really got worse during this time when inflation skyrocketed in wages and salaries.”

The proposed increases would take correctional workers to around $ 20 an hour, Gardenhire estimated. As state taxes are rising and Tennessee is running huge surpluses, this might not last, he said. Still, the senator noted, “the people we have who work in the state of Tennessee in these frontline jobs, we are not paying them enough to attract and keep quality employees.”

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, a former member of the State Parole Board, said the correctional officer shortage was a national problem and he believed one of the “real reasons” was the level of remuneration.

“What was proposed by outgoing Commissioner Parker, I think, is in line with reality,” Hakeem said, adding later, “at this time, I would be inclined to encourage the governor to move forward on these. recommendations. In our economic climate, that makes all the sense in the world. “

Contact Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @ AndySher1.

How does Tennessee compare?

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee plans to include $ 15.86 million in his next fiscal year 2022-2023 budget to provide salary increases to prison correctional officers and other frontline workers in the Department of the correction. Here’s how Tennessee’s starting salary for correctional officers compares to surrounding states.

Virginia: $ 37,400.

Missouri: $ 36,000.

Alabama: $ 33,100.

North Carolina: $ 33,100.

Tennessee: $ 32,500.

Georgia: $ 31,000.

Arkansas: $ 30,800.

Mississippi: $ 30,300.

Kentucky: $ 30,000.

Source: Tennessee Corrections Department


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