Senator Mike Cunningham

A little more than a year ago, a bad situation at Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron took a sudden and violent turn for the worse. On May 12, 2018, more than 200 inmates at the medium-to-maximum-security prison refused to return to their cells following the evening meal. The dining hall sit-in soon became a destructive riot that lasted more than six hours. Order was eventually restored, but the facility remained in lock-down for months.

A review of circumstances that led to the riot highlighted a number of causes, including overcrowding and inmate restlessness. The core issue, though, was understaffing. Prison employees worked overtime just to keep the facility secure. With staff stretched thin, activities that normally keep prisoners occupied were curtailed. Tensions mounted.

The incident revealed a staffing crisis that exists throughout Missouri’s correctional system. Missouri’s prison employees are the second-lowest paid in the nation. Currently, the starting salary for a Corrections Officer I in Missouri is $31,288 per year, or roughly $15 per hour. In Illinois, the starting pay is $48,000. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national average salary for corrections officers is $43,500 per year.

People become corrections officers for a lot of reasons. Some people view the job as a stepping stone to a law enforcement career. For others, it’s one of the few local jobs that offers health insurance and retirement benefits. That’s certainly true in small towns, such as Licking and Fordland, two communities where the prison is a top employer.

Unfortunately, the compensation package also includes a number of undesirable “benefits.” Fatigue, burn-out, depression and physical danger are just part of the job. Being locked inside the walls of a prison for eight hours each day takes a toll on a man or woman. Many corrections workers say they eventually feel the psychological weight of the institution as much as the inmates they guard.

Is it any wonder that many prison employees count down the days? When a better opportunity comes along, they escape.

Turn-over is rampant among corrections officers. Each year, about 18 percent of the Department of Corrections workforce quits. At any given time, the department has 600-700 vacancies. Increasingly, our prisons are staffed by insufficient numbers of relatively new hires, with little experience. This was precisely the set-up that led to the riot in Cameron.

In January, the governor proposed closing the troubled Crossroads Correctional Center and transferring inmates to a nearby institution. While conditions at the prison made closure desirable, falling prison populations made the consolidation possible. The money saved mothballing Crossroads will fund a retention pay plan for corrections officers. It’s hoped that higher pay will entice experienced officers to stay on the job and allow the department to begin filling some of the empty slots.

The raises approved by the Legislature in May will bump current prison employees’ pay 1 percent for every two years on the job, up to 20 years. This is in addition to the 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment all Missouri state employees will receive in 2020. The retention pay plan is expected to account for about $9 million of the department’s $780 million annual budget – an amount more than offset by the $12 million saved by closing Crossroads.

Higher pay for corrections officers is long overdue. These men and woman work hard under conditions that most of us would not tolerate. They put their lives on the line and continued to do their important work, while we ignored their needs. Raising their pay is not just the right thing to do for employee morale, its good public policy. Understaffed prisons are dangerous. Expensive, and potentially deadly, outcomes are inevitable.

We’ve known our corrections workers were underpaid for some time. It took a prison riot for us to do something about it. Honestly, I don’t know how many of us would be willing to do the work, at any wage. Corrections officers perform an important duty for the citizens of Missouri. It’s high time we begin to show our appreciation.

It is my great honor to represent the citizens of the 33rd Senatorial District. Although the Legislature has adjourned for 2019, I remain your senator throughout the year. If there’s anything that I can do to assist you, please feel free to contact my Capitol office at (573) 751-1882.