The Denver Post
DENVER — Paul Brackmann had worked as a teacher for 25 years, including stints as a principal and assistant principal, and was looking for a slightly different opportunity when he took a job as a teacher at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex.
He loved his work teaching GED classes and cognitive therapy to people incarcerated in the 1,200-bed facility. He felt that he could build spaces where his students felt comfortable sharing their lives.
This winter, however, staffing shortages at the complex meant Brackmann was pulled in to work corrections officer shifts. He manned hallways and housing units, keeping an eye out for trouble.
Brackmann was OK with the shifts at first — he felt like he was helping. But the shifts kept coming and there’s seemingly no end in sight. Now, he spends a quarter of his work week on a security shift. His classes are falling behind.
“It’s all wrong,” said Brackmann, speaking as a member of the Colorado WINS union. “I’m a teacher. Teachers shouldn’t be doing that.”
More than a quarter of the approximately 8,000 jobs in the Colorado Department of Corrections are vacant as the prisons struggle to recruit and retain corrections officers, teachers, social workers and health care providers.
The staffing shortage means some corrections officers are working 16-hour double shifts more than once a week. Social workers and teachers are taking security shifts, reducing the amount of time they have for their actual duties, like leading GED classes and helping people incarcerated get into halfway houses. That leads to frustration among inmates and staff alike.
“When we kill programming inside of our facilities, we’ve got tons of guys that we’re just running through the system and getting back out on the streets still as dangerous criminals who’ve just done time,” Brackmann said. “That’s all. We haven’t made any impact to improve their life and thus make them safer for society.”
Department of Corrections Director Dean Williams acknowledged the problem and said he thinks about the staffing crisis every day. Colorado is not the only state facing such a challenge, he said.
In June, 1,714 positions were vacant, including 670 corrections officer positions. That’s nearly triple the number of department vacancies in April 2020. The number of employment applications the department receives every month has also fallen from 1,149 in 2019 and 2020 to 719 this year.
“I’m concerned about how long we can stay with kind of vacancy,” he said.
The crisis comes as the prison population is expected to grow for the first time in several years. The number of people incarcerated in Colorado prisons declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, but state forecasters estimate it will increase 43% between the ends of fiscal years 2021 and 2028, from 15,434 people to approximately 22,125.
Staffing retention has been a concern for the Colorado Department of Corrections for years. Reducing staff turnover has been one of Gov. Jared Polis’ “Wildly Important Goals” for the department for three years. This year, the goal was to reduce the turnover rate from 13% to 12% by June 30. As of April, however, the turnover rate had instead increased to 22%.
The department has paid retention bonuses, offered signing bonuses and lowered the minimum hiring age from 21 to 18, Williams said.
But there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight, some workers said. It’s a cyclical problem, Brackmann said. Low staffing creates burnout. Burnout creates resignations and retirements, which means less staff and more burnout.
“When everybody there is just tired, we’re not doing the job the way we should be doing the job,” said Nicole Richardson, a corrections officer and a member of Colorado WINS. “We’re just housing people and trying to make it home instead of providing the type of care and services they need.”
For the past few months, Richardson has found herself working two or three 16-hour shifts every week. On those days, she arrives at the San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo at 5:45 a.m. and leaves around 10:15 p.m. Then she’s back at work again at 5:45 a.m. the next day.
Richardson needs the work to support her three kids as a single mom. But she feels like she never sees her kids. She rarely eats real meals anymore, she said, and instead subsists on chips from the gas station or bread and peanut butter she brings to work.
“It’s really hard to care about taking care of, or trying to rehabilitate, inmates when you can’t take care of yourself,” she said.
The understaffing started to become a crisis about six months ago, Williams said. Some of the causes include the fact that the work cannot be done remotely, that the job market generally favors workers right now and that other states in similar staffing crunches are recruiting aggressively.
Williams said the department lost several candidates recently when they decided to go work for Nebraska’s prisons, which are offering a $10,000 sign-on bonus for corporal positions at some facilities.
To make do with less staff, Colorado’s prisons have limited outdoor time for incarcerated people and canceled programming, Williams said.
“That hurts the men and women who are incarcerated,” he said.
Dana Mueller took her job as a case manager with the Department of Corrections more than seven years ago. She enjoyed forming relationships with people incarcerated at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City and helping them develop parole plans and apply to halfway house programs and jobs. It’s her job to help lower a person’s risk of committing a new crime after release by helping them plan.
In recent months, however, she’s spent 16 hours a week working security instead of managing cases. She barely has enough time to get the most important case management work done, much less complete tasks that may be less time-sensitive. It’s triage, she said.
“It was more than a paycheck for me,” said Mueller, who is also a member of WINS. “But when they started pulling us into security, it was like they ripped my career away.”
Brackmann, too, feels like he’s wasting his expertise. He’s not a good corrections officer and doesn’t have the mindset to do the job well, he said, despite some basic security training he took while in the academy.
It’s also taken him away from his teaching. He’s graduated fewer people from his GED program because he has less time to teach. From July 2021 to January, he graduated about a dozen students from the program, he said. From January to the end of June, he’s only graduated one or two people, he said.
In that time, the waitlist for his class grew to about 40.
The savings from all the open positions cover the cost of overtime and some bonuses, Williams said. The starting pay for a corrections officer is $50,892 a year and the department is offering a $200 sign-on bonus for people to work at the Buena Vista facility.
Beyond lowering the minimum hiring age, Williams and other department leaders are reconsidering the policy that bans employees from using marijuana while off the clock. They are also considering implementing 12-hour shifts for workers.
The department has found success in some unlikely places. It recruited more than 20 employees from Puerto Rico, and expects more workers to come from there. The department’s “fast-track hiring events” give job offers to eligible candidates the day of the event in an attempt to get people to work as quickly as possible.
Mueller, Brackmann and Richardson all said they don’t feel like upper management is hearing their concerns or taking their suggested solutions seriously.
“We’ve talked about what if we just lock the facility down and then the inmates will complain,” Richardson said. “They won’t listen to us, but maybe they’ll listen to offenders.”
Williams wouldn’t say what would happen if the staffing problem continues to worsen, but said he’s considering all options and that the governor is aware of the problem.
“The mood amongst staff has changed,” Williams said. “They look tired. They are tired.
“This is painful,” he added.