The ongoing shortage of correctional officers at the Lovelock and Ely state prisons is the result of several contributing factors. In addition to the rural geographical locations, lack of available housing, logistics and a low pay scale, the problem is compounded by prison politics.
Department of prison administrators offer up a disclaimer by saying that other Western states are having the same problem. Administrators insist that the lack of correctional officers, below designed staffing minimums at either facility, does not constitute a security problem. In other words, the current staffing levels and expanded hours and workloads for correctional officers are sufficient to sustain 24 hour, seven days per week operations in normal, expanded and emergency operations.
The primary responsibility of the correctional officer is to maintain the safety and security of the facility to include inmates, staff, visitors and the general public. By default, correctional officers are the control, security and enforcement arm of the criminal justice system. Police officers and deputy sheriffs arrest and charge suspects with criminal violations. The court system prosecutes, convicts and sentences the suspects, who then are transferred as inmates to the correctional facilities and become the responsibility of the correctional officers. They essentially are forgotten by society, unless they are involved in further offenses, appeal their sentences or face execution. Also forgotten are the dedicated men and women who work as correctional officers inside the state's correctional facilities.
Correctional officers walk the toughest beat in the state, where the worst of the worst that society has to offer are gathered together to serve and live out their sentences. They work in a potentially hostile, dangerous and volatile environment with inmate to officer ratios of 70-to-1 and higher. Inside the perimeter fences, correctional officers don't carry assault rifles, tactical shotguns, semi-automatic handguns, aerosol restraints and batons. Nor are they issued bullet or stab resistant vests for their personal safety.
Instead, they have to rely on officer presence, verbal commands, interpersonal communication skills and defensive tactics, the first three levels on the use of force continuum. They also rely on other available correctional officers to respond and back them up in officer safety and emergency situations. These same officers that are being overworked, are fatigued and live 50 to 100 miles away. In the state correctional environment, an inmate could assault an officer with physical force or an inmate manufactured weapon (IMW), and the officer could be dead or dying in less than a minute.
Maybe the prison administration is right, there is no problem today. But what about tomorrow, what about the upcoming holiday season, the new millennium and Y2K?
It's time to take another look at the shortages of correctional officers, identify the problem and take proactive steps to increase staffing, safety and security in our state facilities. Now the prison administration counters with: That's easy to say but difficult to accomplish. Well then, let me offer some viable solutions to the problem.
1. Reinstatement program: The administration should discontinue the current no-rehire program and develop a reinstatement program that would reduce training costs and expedite the placement of trained and experienced correctional officers into vacant positions.
2. Correctional office pay plan: The administration and state personnel should develop and implement a new pay scale for the correctional officer series that takes into consideration the individual correctional officer's experience, training and education.
3. Rural incentive compensation program: The administration should implement a 10 percent incentive pay for Lovelock and a 15 percent incentive pay for the Ely State prison.
4. Van pool program: The administration should implement a van pool program for correctional staff that live in Fallon, Fernley or Reno and travel to and from the Lovelock facility. Existing private carriers could be utilized.
5. Recruitment unit for selection/hiring - RUSH: The administration should develop a committee to review the current hiring process for correctional officers and streamline the process wherever possible.
6. Correctional emergency response and tactics - CERT: The administration should implement existing proposals for a CERT team for support, response, containment and resolution of high risk incidents, emergency operations and mutual aid requirements. This team would be a valuable recruitment tool for the department.
Let me add my own disclaimer. Other states have already identified the problem and have taken these steps to improve correctional officer staffing, safety and security.