Task force to study qualifications for state prison guards

Goal is to give jobs more prestige and better pay.
Friday, October 31, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:16 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Guarding prisoners is one of the lowest-paid and highest-stress jobs in state government, according to the Department of Corrections. But following a recent successful manhunt in and around the Missouri State Penitentiary, the governor is looking for corrections officers to get more respect.

A task force, announced Thursday by Gov. Bob Holden, will create a professional certification program for Missouri corrections officers. The nine-member Corrections Officer Certification Commission will study what qualifications state prison guards and county jailers should meet, as well as whether applicants should be tested to become corrections officers.

The Department of Corrections said the aim of the certification program is to give the jobs more prestige as well as better pay and benefits. The commission will eventually make recommendations to the department.

“This has been a priority for the department for a couple of years now,” said department director Gary Kempker. “We can’t tell the difference in an officer that walked out of the academy yesterday and one that’s been working for years. We hope to identify and recognize their training and their value to the state of Missouri.”

According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, the average starting corrections officer makes about $26,500 a year. A corrections officer with more than 20 years experience makes $31,000.

In Kansas, a starting officer makes about $22,940. In Iowa, he or she makes $31,000 to $44,000 per year.

Missouri applicants for the job must be at least 21 and free of felonies, although they are not required to have a high school diploma. Even prison guards who deal with the hardest criminals only receive half the amount of training as a police officer, the Department of Corrections said.

Kempker said he hopes pay and other matters would improve under a certification program, which would be similar to the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training program for law enforcement officers.

Department spokesman Tim Kniest said higher standards could mean more dedicated and professional employees. Corrections officers had an almost 23 percent turnover rate last year, he said.

The commission is part of a bill passed by the General Assembly in August that is aimed at raising the public profile of corrections officers. The appointments to the commission came eight days after hundreds of corrections officers were involved in a four-day manhunt for two Missouri State Penitentiary inmates, Christopher Sims and Shannon Phillips, who were found Sunday morning in the basement of a prison housing unit.

The nine members of the task force include David Brown, a Columbia attorney, and Lt. David Topash, a level-three corrections officer at the Cremer Therapeutic Community Center, who is also from Columbia. The men were notified of their appointments Thursday.

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