Missouri Recruits Prison Guards Amid High Turnover, Low Pay
The first recruit showed up at boot camp an hour early, wearing a 2014 letter jacket to keep warm.
Then two pals pulled into the icy parking lot together, also eager to become correctional officers. One of them, after a short stint in the Army, craved routine. The other had a daughter to support and felt lucky to have survived an infection that cut his weight to 365 pounds.
Bethany Henson, 22, was a third his size. She arrived determined to confront her fear of abusive men for the opportunity to earn enough money to have her own home. Had she not been starting a criminal justice career this day, she said, she’d be looking for a lawyer.
“I want to show all these other single mothers out there who have had as much difficulty as I’ve had that they can do it,” said Henson, who has three children. “When I was younger, I didn’t feel like dreams mattered.”
In all, 46 people — ages 19 to 52 — started the four-week boot camp on March 4, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Their backgrounds were diverse, but the reasons why they wanted to be on the front lines of the Missouri Department of Corrections were not.
“Right now they need a job. That’s who is coming through the door,” said Jim Wiseman, head of training for the department, which has been hammered by turnover. “And doggone it, we need them.”
Wiseman stood under the disco ball at the Pike County Fairgrounds, personally greeting each one of them. “Come on in, welcome,” he said. “You found us.”
Under normal conditions, new recruits go to training academies in Jefferson City, Farmington or St. Joseph before being placed in one of the state’s 21 prisons. Staff departures have been so high at Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green — and the competition steep for the same jobs in Illinois and Iowa — that the medium-security prison needed a lifeboat of its own.
Shortages have depleted institutional knowledge statewide, while more and more officers quit. In 2018 alone, 1,262 correctional officers left, up from 823 in 2014. There were recently 776 openings for the lowest level of correctional officer, which has a full capacity of 4,773.
Though the state’s largest agency operates on a $786 million annual budget, its 11,000 employees are among the lowest paid in the nation. The average salary last year for correctional officers and jailers in Missouri was $31,650, according to the U.S. Department of Labor — well below both Iowa, $50,750, and Illinois, $62,440. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, in his budget proposal, calls for pay raises that could be as much as 13% for some correctional officers, which officials say will help retention.
But the job itself — being hemmed in by a “kill fence” with violent offenders — isn’t for everyone, no matter the pay. The so-called forgotten officers of law enforcement face a bruising cycle. Fewer hands and low morale cut into the quality of programs for the 30,000 inmates, which disrupts prison life and adds more stress for everyone.
It’s also increasingly more costly for taxpayers. In 2018 alone, the department spent $26 million on overtime, more than three times as much as in 2014.
That doesn’t include a mountain of unused comp time and more than $113 million that a Cole County court awarded correctional officers in 2018 for unpaid work that they performed before and after their shifts.
A few officers said voluntary and mandatory overtime are nice for a while, but it’s gone on so long that workers get burned out by not seeing the families they’re trying to support. Some call in sick rather than wait to be relieved from a long shift.
One correctional officer getting ready to quit said inmates know staff can be too tired to deal with them, which makes it easier to plant and pass around contraband, such as drugs and homemade tattoo guns, hooch and knives.
All the while, those who are stepping up to get hired tend to be younger and less experienced. The minimum age has dropped to 19 from 21. A driver’s license is no longer required. Nor are the agility and problem-solving tests once used to screen applicants. About a third of new hires don’t make it through the first year, which Director Anne Precythe is trying to improve in part through the training program.
In Bowling Green, Wiseman encouraged the new class of recruits to ask questions and not give up if they get discouraged. He also promised cookies and punch in a month at a graduation ceremony that their families could attend, an event that had fallen out of practice.
“We got you in the door right now,” he told them. “You are employees. Don’t go anywhere, folks.”
Many of the recruits were starting the highest paying job of their lives: A base salary of $30,000, or $15 an hour, and benefits.
A lot of them came from eastern Pike County, along the Mississippi River, where the loss of industry 85 miles north of St. Louis has made the economic situation look “Third World,” said Chris Gamm, presiding county commissioner.
“The Department of Corrections is by far the largest employer in the county,” he said.
Tracy Davis, 48, of Louisiana, Missouri, said she’s gone through several jobs in recent years, including waitress, medication tech, and temp at the GM assembly plant. She liked the stability of the prison industry. “I’ve been trying to find something that pays well and has good benefits, so I ended up here,” Davis said.
She’s a grandmother with five grown children — one boy, four girls. “It will be OK,” she said about the challenges of dealing with prisoners. “The inmates have nothing on my girls.”
Lisa Maxey most recently earned $8.35 an hour at a gas station and didn’t want to say why that job ended.
“Bowling Green really doesn’t have any options, to be honest,” she said. “There are a few gas stations and restaurants, and there’s Walmart. You never know when they are going to be hiring. It’s nice to go where they actually need you and you aren’t just expendable.”
When she was in high school, she wanted to be a mortician or work in a psych ward. Now 27, with the driver’s license requirement lifted, she was excited to get a flavor of that at the corrections department. Her family was proud of her.
“They said I have the mentality for it,” she said. “I can shut off my emotions in a heartbeat.”
Austin Borders, 23, was originally from the southeast Missouri town of Doniphan, where he said he grew up working at sawmills and later ran out of opportunity. In Bowling Green, he’s washed dishes at a café and most recently earned $9.25 an hour at McDonald’s, which cut his shift in half over winter.
“I can’t get my bills paid on that,” he said.
He looked forward to steady paychecks and all the overtime they’d give him. He’d recently put $400 down on a $2,500 pickup and agreed to pay at least $150 a month. Now the transmission was going out and the truck needed other repairs.
“My brakes are metal on metal,” he said.
A few of them had experience working with inmates.
Ashley Treiber, 29, formerly worked as a correctional officer for St. Charles County. She had a lot of informed responses to questions in class. She also had a long commute and a 2-year-old son. She arrived late after lunch on the first day of boot camp, in tears. She said her grandfather died over the weekend.
“I am trying to make this work,” she said. “I am going to keep trying.”
A 5-hour energy drink helped get her through the afternoon session on discrimination, harassment, retaliation and unprofessional conduct.
Scott Phillips, of the Office of Professional Standards Civil Rights Unit, told them that professionalism was expected of every employee of the department and that they could set the tone of worksite culture.
“We work for the public, the citizens of Missouri,” he told them. “It’s important that we give them a good reason to continue to fund us. If we are behaving badly, do you think they are going to want to fund us the way that we think we need?”
While he didn’t need a fake example, he put up a sample story from the “The Daily News” to show possible publicity from doing the wrong thing, like bringing contraband into prison, having sex with offenders or harassing peers.
That same afternoon, a headline ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the state paying $600,000 to a corrections department employee to settle a sexual harassment claim. Shown the story, Jessica Hays, 23, said she hadn’t heard about the case, nor numerous other payouts and reports exposing a culture of harassment and retaliation in Missouri’s prisons.
“They offer really good benefits. The pay is decent. I figured I might as well start something new I can build a career in,” said Hays. “I wanted to see what I am made of.”
Other women in the class hadn’t heard about the scandal either.
Phillips went through several scenarios to help notice improper behavior among staff and supervisors. For instance, what if a boss invites you out for beers to talk about a test?
“Is that a request for sex?” Phillips asked.
“Not yet,” said Treiber.
Two weeks later, Angela Nickelson went through more scenarios to prepare the recruits for inmates with special needs and those who will try to manipulate them.
“You are going to take a lot of verbal abuse,” she warned. “We don’t care, do we?”
Nickelson, 49, made a career out of corrections. She said in an interview that when she was hired in 1994, she was one of the smallest correctional officers in the department — and likely the only one with a fresh college degree in elementary education.
“The brain is the most powerful tool you can have here,” she said. “We are not all out there wrestling inmates every day.”
A year after being hired, she said, she was relieved to be assigned to a death row housing unit at Potosi Correctional Center. Compared to the general prison population, she said, they were laid back. One of them was serial killer Anthony Joe LaRette.
“He was pretty interesting,” she said. “Super friendly. Great personality, which is what you should be leery of.”
She said people who work in corrections “aren’t like normal people.” She admitted that she has a potty mouth from working in the industry and prison lingo permeated her household. Instead of being grounded, her kids went to “administrative segregation” at home when they got in trouble.
Inmates and low pay don’t seem to scare her. She didn’t discourage her son, a former heavyweight wrestler, from the career. In 2018, his first full year of employment with the department, he made $35,679, according to a state database. Mom, the veteran employee, made $41,382.
She specializes in training correctional officers. “Nothing about our job is about punishment, it’s about rehabilitation and treating people as human beings,” she told the class, assuring: “How you present yourself is how you will be perceived.”
Many inmates have disabilities such as dementia, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Some don’t play well with others because of their mental illness,” she said. “Then they are locked up in a prison full of people they’d like to stay away from. They aren’t being rebellious. They don’t get it.”
But inmates with antisocial personality disorder are some of the worst to look out for, she said, ”(Even) if you have six kids, they will take you out and not care.”
She went over how to notice and talk to inmates contemplating suicide. Before showing the recruits how to cut somebody down who tried to hang himself, she gave fair warning for the class exercise.
Henson, the 22-year-old recruit with three kids, fled the room and missed hearing Nickelson say this:
“When you walk in and see somebody hanging and you’ve never seen it, it’s pretty disturbing. You are going to see it a million more times in your head.”
Defensive tactics seemed the most emotionally challenging to the class. One recruit, who’d impressed colleagues and instructors through coursework, broke down and cried while working on the mats. She said she’d been the victim of domestic violence.
Another said she wasn’t comfortable having anybody even act like they were choking her. An older man in the class also struggled to learn various maneuvers.
Sgt. Dan Wiley, an Army veteran with three lifesaver awards and another for valor from his work at Northeast Correctional Center, told recruits to breathe and keep trying until various techniques became muscle memory.
“This is just practice for when the real thing happens,” he told them.
Videos of real attacks weren’t shared at boot camp. Instead, they role-played attacking each other in slow motion with rubber knives and other devices.
“Hand me your weapon,” one recruit said.
“Why are you stabbing me?” asked another.
In late 2017, an offender at the prison used a homemade knife to stab a correctional officer in the back of the head and hand multiple times as she tried to flee Housing Unit No. 8. The unprovoked “hit and run” happened in about 10 seconds, maybe less, said Jeff Kaufman, a Bowling Green detective.
“I am sure it seemed like hours to her,” he said.
The injured officer was treated and released from the hospital and later testified that she had lingering injuries and mental anguish. She is still employed by the department. The trainee who was beside her at the time of the attack is not.
Wiley was one of the first to respond. He saw the blood and heard the screams of what he said sounded like someone being murdered. He helped restrain the inmate who did it — Jeardin Hutchins, 31, of Bel-Ridge, who was in prison for robbing a Domino’s Pizza in 2011.
Asked if the trainees were prepared to defend themselves, Wiley said: “Were you ready when your child was born? They are going to have to grow as officers before anybody is ready.”
As promised, there were cookies and punch on Graduation Day. Out of the 46 who started boot camp, two dropped out, including one recruit who described himself on his social media page as a “professional napper.”
The rest graduated, but four of them were on provisional status until they passed defensive tactics and shooting a 12-gauge shotgun. About a fourth of them had never fired a weapon.
“Wow! This is a big deal,” Wiseman, the training chief, said at the ceremony. “We do graduation ceremonies, and recognition ceremonies, but not this big.”
He thanked the 150 people in attendance.
“There are a lot of things that happen inside a prison that challenge employees, and they need the support of family and friends,” he said. “We can see, just from looking out here, that they have your support.”
Dan Redington, the new warden in Bowling Green, also offered congratulations. “We truly are looking forward to getting you back to our facility, making you part of our family,” he said.
Twenty-five years ago, he said, he was sitting where they were. He thought being a correctional officer was going to be temporary.
“Lo and behold, it got into my skin and I loved this environment,” he said. “I loved the people I am working with. I can truly say this job has been a blessing because it has taken care of my family, and it’s something I enjoy to do. So I hope that you all will feel the same way about this.”
After hearing many complaints as a Republican state representative from the area, Rep. Jim Hansen, vice chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said in a speech to the graduates that the department was moving in the right direction.
“I am truly grateful for the work you are doing to keep our community safe, to help rehabilitate people,” he said. “That is the No. 1 mission, to get people back into society and be productive citizens. So I wish you the best.”
That resonated with Stacey Strickland, 45, of Hannibal, whose daughter Ebony was among the graduates. Another daughter also works in the prison system.
“If you can change one person — one individual — sometimes the flowers keep growing,” he said.
Stacy Harrison said she was proud of her “headstrong and determined” daughter, Bethany Henson, for taking advantage of one of the biggest opportunities in the area. “It scares me a little bit, but I know the security there is something you can count on,” she said.
Michael Davis, 20, of Louisiana, said he was proud of his mother, Tracy Davis — the grandmother with five children.
“Over the last year and a half, she’s gone through so many jobs, it’s crazy,” he said.
The Northeast Correctional Center, built for 2,100 inmates, hunkers in a former cornfield between the Bowling Green water tower and a sewage treatment plant. A help-wanted sign on the edge of the property stays up all the time.
After graduation, most of the new officers had two weeks of on-the-job training there. Armed with pepper spray, handcuffs, radios and rubber gloves, they were slowly introduced to the male inmate population by helping do roll calls and random pat-downs of people leaving the chow hall.
“The prisoners don’t like us, but it’s bound to be like that anywhere we go,” said Sean Lambert, 20, who’d served in the Army.
Tracy Davis didn’t used to give the prison much thought when she drove by it.
“There’s people in here with real problems,” she said. “Some of these guys are 6-foot tall, or 7-foot tall.”
Taller than her four daughters.
“I want to go home at the end of the day, so I am going to treat them with respect if at all possible,” she said. “Then you have to stand your ground, too.”
That same day, a job fair kicked off under the disco ball over at the Pike County Fairgrounds, where the boot camp was temporarily held. One hundred job seekers signed in to walk the 30 booths.
The corrections department had a basket of peppermints set out. One recruiter touted the ease of being a correctional officer, while another hyped the benefits — three weeks of paid vacation and three weeks of paid sick leave earned in the first year of employment; a dozen paid holidays; health, dental and death benefits; and the opportunity to serve in as soon as two weeks.
Neal and Chelsea Breting wandered up to the dangling carrot. They were in limbo, staying with family, after a burst pipe damaged their home. Their 20-month-old daughter didn’t like to be set down long. Neal regretted working so many hours previously selling cars. They needed income.
“Money is money at this point,” said Chelsea, 22, who applied.
As the department was poised to gain an employee, it lost another.
Treiber, who had previous jail experience in St. Charles County, quit on a recent Thursday, right before the training wheels came off for the rest of her boot camp peers. She said she landed a job closer to home as a police records clerk. It pays $52,000 — a 73% bump.