Adam Marriott was a Navy veteran and thought the culture of corrections would be a good fit for him. He worked as an officer at Maryville Treatment Center in Maryville.
He lasted only 18 months in the job.
“Honestly, if somebody’s doing this long term, they’ve got to be some of the thicker-skinned people there are, because it can get to you,” Marriott said.
Troy Johnson, a former officer at Algoa Correctional Center for six years and Tipton Correctional Center for more than three years, felt the same way.
“I was 28 when I went in, and it destroyed me,” Johnson said. “That job isn’t for the weak of heart, and that’s the problem with it.”
These former corrections officers in Missouri state prisons contend that they were overworked, underpaid and simply fed up.
“It’s terrible. People who’ve never done the job, they think they have an idea of what goes on in an institution. But they really don’t,” said Todd Wildhaber, a correctional officer and lieutenant at Algoa Correctional Center for nearly a decade.
In the past four years, Missouri Department of Corrections vacancies have more than quadrupled from 143 to nearly 800 openings. The department has also spent a record $76 million in overtime salaries since 2014. Additionally, assaults on employees have increased 26 percent in the last six years, according to data collected in a joint investigation by KOMU, KBIA and the Columbia Missourian.
At least two studies have found that correctional officers already face higher-than-normal rates of PTSD and suicide risk. These staffing shortages cause additional tension and risks for both correctional officers and the inmates in their care, making an already stressful environment more difficult.
“Officers can become burned out from working excessive hours. … They can easily become overwhelmed with the demands throughout the prison,” said Janet Garcia-Hallett, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Officers may experience daily stress because of the nature of the job, she said. Combined with understaffing, it makes their jobs even more difficult to handle, Garcia-Hallett said.
Anthony Gangi, a 15-year corrections veteran who writes about the industry for CorrectionsOne.com, said in addition to the general stress that comes from working in a prison, corrections officers in Missouri, and nationwide, are facing a constant battle against exhaustion and burnout.
Management is hiring out of desperation instead of quality, Gangi said.
“They’re looking at the numbers,” he said. “Like this shift requires 30 people. Do we have 30 people?”
The Missouri Department of Corrections has a strategic plan to address employee pay and prison safety. The recently approved state budget has $35 million for raises, and the department plans to recruit more employees while reducing inmate numbers through criminal justice reforms.
Department Director Anne Precythe acknowledged prison employees have a tough job for low pay. However, she said, the job is an important one.
“It is so rewarding to be a part of someone else’s success, and you really have to be here to see that because success looks different ways on different people,” she said.
Mental health concerns
Rates of PTSD within the correctional officer population are the same as rates of combat veterans, according to a study published by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
The study surveyed corrections officers in Washington state and found that the average rate of PTSD in corrections staff was 19 percent; in combat veterans the rate ranged from 11 to 20 percent.
Many factors contribute to the mental health of corrections officers, according to the study, but one of the main causes was the uncertainty of what the job would bring day-to-day.
Johnson said it was not, “‘One of these days I’m gonna get hurt,’ or, ‘I’m gonna get punched,’ or, ‘I’m gonna get kicked in the face,’ or, ‘I’m gonna get knocked down or beat up.’ It was not, you know, maybe. It was when,” he said.
A study published in BMC Health, a research organization that publishes peer-reviewed journals in London, found that officers who experience stress and burnout are potentially less dedicated to their jobs. They may have increased “counterproductive attitudes and behaviors that can manifest in misconduct.”
Caterina Spinaris, a researcher at Desert Waters Correctional Outreach in Denver, studies corrections and builds programs to help states improve their outreach. She said the nature of the job creates a “hypervigilance” in officers, which doesn’t necessarily disappear when they leave prison grounds.
That high-stress environment typically puts a strain on relationships outside of the workplace, she said.
“It’s enough to end a relationship. When they go off, or escalate something instead of de-escalate it, that may be because of hypervigilance. They become paranoid, they become overprotective … so they constrict their lives or their loved ones’ lives,” Spinaris said.
That’s what happened to Johnson and some of his colleagues. Their marriages and relationships suffered because of the strain the job put on their personal lives, and some of them got divorced.
“Thank God I had (an hour commute) because it let me calm down before I got home to my kids,” Johnson said. “You tend to get home early, and you would still have that bark in your talk like (you) were talking to an offender, and you’d do it to your kids. I hated that part of the job.”
The lack of mental health support is a contributing factor in the decline of officers’ well-being. Correctional officers’ risk of suicide is 39 percent higher than the rest of all other professions combined, according to the Desert Waters study Spinaris co-authored, which centers around depression and PTSD in corrections officers.
“I’ve known several friends of mine, several guys, that have committed suicide, who did more years than I did,” Johnson said.
Alongside its above-average rates of PTSD, the job can also lead people toward substance abuse, according to the Desert Waters study.
Spinaris said the alcohol consumption rates of corrections officers with PTSD “puts people at risk.”
“So you have people that are really affected, going to work in one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet,” Spinaris said.
Budget cuts, prison tensions
Low budgets and high officer turnover also lead to program cuts for prisoners within facilities, ranging from cutting extra recreational time to removing job training programs. This can lead to discontent among inmates, Garcia-Hallett said.
“So those who are incarcerated, they become frustrated,” Garcia-Hallett said. “They’re told that they can do something or they have a service available to them, and then to have it stripped for no reason of theirs, ... .”
At Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, tensions came to a boiling point when understaffing led to a reduction of programs for the prisoners.
“Crossroads for the last few years have been taking away the men’s activities ... , closing down the barbershop, stopping them from their rec time outside,” said Latahra Smith, a private investigator and director of prisoner advocacy groups KC Freedom Project and Missouri Families for Inmate Rights.
Shortly after dinner on May 12, 2018, nearly half of the inmates housed at the medium- to maximum-security prison staged a sit-in to protest the program cuts due to understaffing. Eventually, some of the inmates returned to their cells. But 78 prisoners remained and did an estimated $1.3 million in damage to the facility’s dining hall, kitchen, staff offices and factory, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Such damages led to a nearly four-month lockdown when the Crossroads prisoners’ diets, recreational time and access to loved ones were severely limited.
During and after the lockdown, Smith said he received over 200 letters from men at Crossroads detailing the environment and events inside.
One letter read: “The riot happened because we were treated inhumanely.”
Throughout Smith’s legal visits, she noted how dramatically inmates appearances changed during the lockdown.
“I know one guy that lost 90 pounds,” Smith said. “We’re talking 85 and 90 pounds from May to September; that’s a lot of weight to lose.
“Family members didn’t have any idea of what their loved ones looked like,” Smith said. “I truly believe that the Department of Corrections knew that once family members laid eyes on their loved ones and could see how poorly (the inmates) looked that they were going to have some issues.”
The Crossroads prison is to be consolidated with the neighboring Western Missouri Correctional Center to save about $20.6 million, according to the department.
For Smith, it all comes back to understaffing.
“When you have prisons which are understaffed, then you’re going to have a lot of things that are going to come along with that.”
This story was produced by students in a spring 2019 Investigative Reporting class at the University of Missouri School of Journalism taught by associate professor Sara Shipley Hiles.