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Prison Wire (copy) (copy)

In 2018, the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron went on lockdown after an inmate riot. At the time, corrections officers voiced concerns about low pay, excessive overtime and stress for those who work inside the prison.

Nearly three years later, the Missouri Department of Corrections announced the temporary closing of two facilities, including the minimum-security Kansas City Reentry Center. Those offenders and staff will move to the Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in St. Joseph and the Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron.

Again, the corrections officers union raised issues of salary and overtime as a contributing factor to the department’s staffing challenges.

How many warnings are we going to get?

There’s nothing wrong with the Department of Corrections making adjustments in light of immediate inmate needs and staffing challenges. Nor is another prison-building spree advisable following a recent focus on justice system reforms and community re-entry. Missouri’s prison population has dropped from around 32,000 in 2018 to about 23,000 in January of this year, a significant change.

But that’s still an inmate count roughly on par with the city of Sedalia’s population. Someone has to guard these inmates, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to find employees willing to take on this task. A sign that something was wrong emerged after the Cameron riot, when a reporter tried to reach a couple of corrections officers on social media and found that they were working at Walmart.

A strange career move. Or was it?

“Talking to a recruiter, talking about all that extra money you can make, it sounds good,” Tim Cutt, executive director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, told a News-Press NOW reporter. “But when you do it six or seven days a week, that’s another issue.”

Missouri lists a starting salary of slightly over $48,000 a year for Highway Patrol troopers. They deserve it.

At the same time, a starting corrections officer makes between $32,000 and $44,000, according to the department’s own website. Those who commented on a recent story said the $32,000 figure is much closer. These correction workers, in the course of a shift, might encounter more people with a criminal background than a law enforcement officer on the outside.

Gov. Mike Parson’s 2022 budget seems to acknowledge that more needs to be done for corrections workers. It includes more than $7.5 million for salaries, a recruitment pay plan and funding to move to market-based minimums. It’s not as splashy as building prisons, but it’s just as necessary.

It is time to support those who staff these institutions and recognize them as integral to the public’s safety.

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