Worker shortage puts Utah’s prison in ‘crisis’
The following story was reported and written by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Utah’s $1.5 billion new prison was supposed to be the start of a revolution in how the state deals with incarcerated felons — with a laserlike focus on safety and rehabilitation. Instead, it’s being run with a bare-bones staff in crisis mode.
Operating the new prison in west Salt Lake City the way it’s designed — and mandated in state law — requires hundreds more officers than the old prison in Draper, which itself was short staffed.
Only 254 of 650 positions are filled — a 61% vacancy rate, the Utah Department of Corrections confirmed in mid-October.
As one officer said in a Facebook group, “If we have enough officers to staff the prison then we will all be much safer.”
“So much mandatory overtime to ‘keep things safe,’” another commented. “There is nothing ‘safe’ about forcing people to work until their bodies are on the verge of giving out.”
Mandatory overtime is the duct tape-style fix being used to keep the prison running with less than half the staff it needs. Officers are working hundreds of thousands of overtime annually.
While mandatory overtime was standard at the old prison and had been for years, it’s suddenly been expanded dramatically.
Officers at the Central Utah Corrections Facility in Gunnison are now required to work overtime shifts at the Salt Lake prison, a four-hour round trip away. OT shifts are also mandatory for probation and parole agents, some based hundreds of miles away and who have never before worked behind bars.
Officers employed at the new prison now are regularly working 72 hours a week, some as many as 84, a schedule that is “not sustainable” long term, acknowledged Spencer Turley, director of prison operations.
Education and other rehabilitation-oriented programs have been curtailed, but for now, he recently told state lawmakers, “we’re absolutely making it work without cutting too many corners safety and security-wise.”
Those assurances ring hollow to two corrections officers who spoke to the Utah Investigative Journalism Project on background, fearing job repercussions because of repeated warnings to staff from top brass not to talk to reporters.
“When you see people coming in and they’re half asleep and they’re dragging and they have to drink four or five energy drinks just to function, there’s a problem,” one officer said.
Corrections has stepped up its recruiting efforts. But meantime, as Turley acknowledged, the punishing effect of never-ending mandatory overtime has created a “vicious cycle” that drives people away.
Failure to deliver on programs and improvements promised to inmates means “they’re mad at us as the floor staff, who are coping with these individuals who are angry and violent,” one of the officers interviewed said.
“I’m seeing and hearing about more and more staff assaults than ever in my career. We’re hearing about more inmate assaults than any time in my career. It’s just not pretty.”
In August, the first full month of operations at the new prison, inmates assaulted or attempted to assault officers nine times. No more than four assaults had been logged in a single month since December of last year, according to department records.
September and October saw four and two reported assaults, respectively. Two attacks days apart in late October and early November were serious, requiring trips to the hospital. Both officers recovered.
The bare-bones staffing is “putting [officers] at risk, there’s no way around it,” one former prison administrator said. “You could have a complete riot and it could end in catastrophe and even lives lost.”
The head of the union representing correctional officers fears what’s ahead.
“They’re reducing [staffing] to the point it’s dangerous. Particularly when you consider how much overtime officers are putting in,” said Chad Bennion, executive director of Lodge 14 of the Fraternal Order of Police. “It’s the worst it’s ever been.”
Corrections top leaders declined requests for an interview but acknowledged to legislators that the system is in “crisis” at an Aug. 16 meeting of the Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.
“On a good day we’re at about a 50% staffing pattern,” Turley, the operations director, said, noting that’s with three of the 10 housing units remaining closed.
“It’s a tough job to do on a full-time basis,” Corrections Director Brian Nielson told state lawmakers, who have said they were being flooded with emails from concerned employees and family members. With mandatory overtime essentially doubling hours on the job, he added, “We are driving our corrections staff into the ground.”
Brought online in mid-July, the massive new prison complex west of Salt Lake City International Airport was built with the promise that it would discard the old “warehousing of inmates” model in favor of one aimed squarely at rehabilitation.
At its heart and built into its design was the concept of “direct supervision,” essentially embedding officers in the prison population to work face-to-face with inmates continuously. The model has seen widespread adoption in jails and prisons nationwide as a way of reducing violence and behavioral problems, with an ultimate aim of enhancing inmates’ prospects for a successful return to society.
Gone are the control rooms that allowed officers in the old Draper facility to oversee multiple sections from a secure perch behind glass, steel and concrete. Instead, the new facility is designed for posting one dedicated officer in each section, a change that requires a bigger staff: 200 more officers.
Utah doesn’t have them.
“Because we’re down so many officers we had to create a modified staffing pattern,” Turley told lawmakers. “Instead of having one officer in every section we now have one officer in every two sections.”
According to planning documents, this means an officer could be overseeing as many as 128 inmates — roughly double what the National Institute of Corrections says is generally the number that can be managed effectively, although there are variables for inmate classification and other factors.
Another big deviation from the core principles of direct supervision is the lack of continuity of officers assigned to a particular unit. Schedules are juggled to try and fill huge staffing holes, including bringing in officers from Gunnison and parole agents unfamiliar with the inmates.
Still, the department insists it is operating within the requirements of a 2021 state law mandating direct supervision at the new prison — a law that requires continuous interaction between officers and inmates with no barriers separating them. Officials say they are employing a “modified version” of direct supervision but won’t say what it is, citing security concerns.
Who saw this coming?
A fair question is why state leaders pushed ahead with the new prison, knowing its design would require so many more officers.
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, and a veteran member of the committee overseeing Corrections’ budget, said “to implement a model that requires more staffing than the existing model when our existing model is already short-handed – habitually short-handed – I don’t know how that came about.”
Nielsen, a former Sanpete County Sheriff who took over the Corrections Department in January of 2021, said he wasn’t involved in the design of the new prison, adding that it couldn’t be changed midstream.
Multiple people interviewed said the prison’s direct supervision design was the brainchild of former Corrections Director Rollin Cook.
Cook resigned in 2018 midway through construction, saying he wanted to explore new opportunities and spend more time with family.
Cook told the Utah Investigative Journalism Project it’s unfair to blame the current crisis on the new prison and its design, noting that correctional facilities across the country are facing the same problems.
“The coronavirus pandemic — and its impact on the labor market — has pushed many corrections systems into crisis,” said a 2021 report from the nonprofit Marshall Project. “Officers are retiring and quitting in droves, while officials struggle to recruit new employees.”
Another nonprofit, Pew Research, reported in September that Georgia has faced vacancies as high as 70% in some facilities. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called up the National Guard to pull shifts in some short-staffed prisons and Texas reportedly closed six of its 100 corrections facilities due to shortages.
Utah has long been unable to fill its prison officer positions. And with the move to the new prison, the vacancy rate jumped overnight from 34% to 61%.
So why did corrections push ahead with the relocation this summer given that dramatic shift?
“There was no need to postpone the prison move,” said spokesman Liam Truchard. “A successful plan was developed and is still in use today to safely and effectively operate the state prison.”
That plan was to divert more inmates to county jails, keep three of the new housing units closed, reduce planned staffing levels and mandate department-wide overtime.
Legislators most closely following the issue — those sitting on the committee over Corrections’ budget — have said they weren’t warned about the new prison’s need for additional staff until a few months ago.
Cook said the governor and lawmakers were aware long before then. But he couldn’t pinpoint exactly when they were told, nor point to any document verifying that, adding, “I don’t think you’re ever going to find that.”
The department and its leaders “understood from the beginning” that the new prison “would require more staff under the direct supervision model,” said Corrections spokesperson Kaitlin Felsted. That information, she added, “was relayed onto the Legislature through various meetings many times.”
The Utah Investigative Journalism Project reviewed committee testimony for five years and found that it wasn’t until January of this year that Corrections spelled out the new prison’s need for more officers — 208 more, to be exact.
Felsted, the Corrections spokesperson, said the department didn’t know exactly how many more officers would be needed until “toward the end of 2021,” and the information was provided to the governor’s office at that time.
Gov. Spencer Cox’s office said he was too busy to grant an interview and responded to written questions — including when he learned of the staffing crisis and whether he believes the prison has enough officers to safely operate — with a general statement praising the department for “promptly” addressing staff shortages, along with software and facilities “challenges.”
The first time the staffing question was raised in the Corrections budget committee appears to be Feb. 6, 2017, when then-Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, asked if the prison’s technology would allow it to be run by fewer officers.
Cook, department director at the time, said it was too early to know the answer, but urged lawmakers not to expect staff savings.
“I’m not trying to beat around the bush. I don’t know what our staffing will be but I want you to know that our priority is safety and security for our employees and for that to occur we have to have the right number of people in place to manage some of the worst of the worst.”
Cook said in a recent interview that while he anticipated at that time that more officers would be needed, “I didn’t know what that number was so I wasn’t committing to it. I wasn’t trying to be evasive, I didn’t know at the time.”
“Now someone is looking for someone to point a finger at and say, ‘Well, how come this wasn’t communicated?’ …. I don’t have that [answer] for you. All I can be is accountable for what I did.”
Cook said when he left in mid-2018 the department was anticipating doing a staffing analysis.
It did, hiring a consultant in 2019 who was under contract until last November. The consultant produced a “preliminary report,” Corrections said, but “there was never a final report given.”
The department refused to release the document, saying it was a draft never used in making decisions, but also asserting its release would violate prison security.
Records obtained by the Utah Investigative Project indicate a Corrections committee led by the consultant was recommending even more than one officer in each section — triple the number currently deployed under the department’s “modified” staffing pattern.
Rod Miller, the consultant, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Department and political leaders had been touting the new prison as a draw for recruiting and retaining officers — Cox this summer called it “a place where you can look forward to coming to work. A place that will be so much healthier for you, for your job, for your families.”
Former and current Corrections employees say these recruiting efforts are too little, too late — and ring false given the dire situation inside.
One former prison officer recently wrote to legislators describing how he quit the job he loved because of the OT and aired his frustration over the lack of action to fix the problem.
“I feel like our administration has failed us. This new prison and staffing crisis was over five years in the making and the writing has been on the walls for at least, at least, the last five years,” said the former prison employee, who asked not to be named.
Two former corrections administrators said that department leaders knew staffing shortages were going to be a problem at the new prison and should have started robust recruiting efforts years ago.
Felsted, the department spokesperson, said Corrections has an intensive recruitment campaign, but acknowledged only one full-time staffer was assigned to this until July, when the team was expanded to four.
The agency recently boosted its pay scale using money approved by the Legislature earlier this year, then granted a new round of raises at the end of August by agreement of the governor and legislative leaders.
All told, $40 million in extra funding boosted the starting pay of a state Corrections officer $7 an hour to $27.33, just above that of the Salt Lake County sheriff’s office.
Cox has also swung into action as a recruiter, sending a letter to former employees urging them to come back.
“Our state correctional institutions – especially our newest prison in Salt Lake City – are at a critical juncture in their staffing levels and we need your help,” he wrote in an Aug. 25 letter obtained by the Utah Investigative Journalism Project. Cox also urged department retirees to return as part-time reserve officers.
Meanwhile, the relentless mandatory overtime and staff shortages are “wearing people down,” said one officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I’ve seen a lot more officers talk about [how] their drinking habit has increased. I had a coworker who [recently] made a comment that implied suicidal ideation.”
“I see the human side of it every day interacting with the officers. The stresses, the family troubles, divorces,” Bennion, the union leader, said.
And yes, suicides, he added.
There’s no doubt that it’s posing safety issues on the job, too, Bennion said. “This has been a problem for so long that it’s beyond critical right now.”
Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, a member of the legislative committee over corrections’ budget, is worried about the stories she’s hearing.
“This is dire,” Moss said. “Somebody is going to get killed or injured.”
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