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Missouri’s prisons in the midst of a correction officer shortage

ST. LOUIS - Missouri is down hundreds of corrections officers.

We don’t often hear about the demands on corrections officers until tragedy strikes. Now the strain is increasing, as Missouri is down more than 500 positions.

"The inmates pretty did much run the Missouri prisons nowadays," said convicted felon Tim Ford.

And Juan Wilson, who worked in a jail before becoming a police officer, said, “We’d actually have people with uncapped syringes in their shoe.”

Wilson said the job requires patience and understanding.

“I’m a huge proponent on respecting people even if they don’t give me the respect I feel that I deserve. He’s still a human being," he said.

Like the time an inmate threw a cup of urine in his face.

“The urine hit my face and I had my taser out while he took his shirt and put it over any contact point I could hit and so we had a standoff. It was probably the first time I experienced tunnel vision,” Wilson said. “We put him in the restraint chair, he just looked up and smiled at everybody. We later learned he had some mental health issues."

Ford still remembers those officers who treated him with respect.

“A lot of the ones I really hit it off with," he said.

Ford said it helped him hold onto hope as he described arriving at a prison.

“The sign says 'leave your hopes and dreams behind' and there’s no worse feeling than that when you see that sign and you’re shackled as it is,” he said.

Ford remembers seeing violence even when an officer would approach a cell to hand out food. He said the inmate, “…grabbed him through the bars so quick and grabbed him by his collar – pulled him straight into those iron bars – blacked both his eyes, messed his face up, but also bruised his collarbone.”

Similar frightening experiences strengthened Wilson’s character and prepared him for police work.

“I needed to respond instead of react. So, I think when you have that component of how do you treat someone who’s treated you so disgustingly, you have to remember responding versus reacting," he said.

Both Ford and Wilson said there’s always a feeling of inmates outnumbering officers – even at full staff.

At present, the 528 vacancies in Missouri breaks down to a shortage of 25 officers per prison. The Missouri Department of Corrections is doing a lot to try filling the vacancies.

A department spokesperson sent the following statement in response to our story:

“We’re posting billboards in areas where the demand for corrections officers is particularly high. We’re dedicating a full-time recruiter for the Cameron area and Northeast Missouri. We also have started to transfer some offenders from that area to other facilities with a hope of closing down three housing units and reducing the strain on staff.

Statewide, we’ve launched targeted digital ad campaigns using in-app cell phone ads and directing users to our online application. We’ve been promoting job openings through Facebook and Twitter. We’ve created some recruitment videos in which staff members talk about their jobs. We have offered one-time pay increases for current employees who recruit new staff (after the new hires complete basic training and are placed in facilities). Our recruitment teams regularly visit career fairs all over the state. We are launching a corrections officer apprenticeship program in Missouri high schools.

Really, we’re trying everything we can afford to attract new staff. At the same time, we’ve been working on new legislation that would help justice-involved Missourians get the treatment they need in the community, reducing the prison population and, consequently, reducing the demand on staff and the costs to taxpayers.

Members of your audience who are interested in working in corrections can go to doc.mo.gov and click on “Jobs” or call 573-526-6477.”