You can’t blame corrections officers for displaying healthy skepticism about the pay boost provided to these law enforcement professionals who serve in the state prison system.
Working in difficult conditions, sometimes inside the state’s maximum-security prisons, these officers must have long ago shed a sense of wide-eyed naiveté about lots of things, including promises from politicians.
So when Gov. Mike Parson announces what the Department of Corrections called the biggest pay increase for prison workers in the state’s history, the officers aren’t off base in showing appreciation but also asking if the state will fix the systemic problems that caused chronic understaffing and low pay relative to other states.
“Is it enough money to draw people in to work there? No, I’m not sure it is,” Gary Gross, with the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, told our reporter.
The state got into this mess with a prison-building spree in the 1990s, part of the three-strikes-and-you’re-out mentality of getting tough on crime. Understaffing became a statewide issue as the inmate population grew faster than the budget. In smaller towns like Cameron, the state found it especially difficult to hire enough employees for two prisons.
The pendulum has now swung the other way, with states eager to save costs on incarceration and explore flexibility in sentencing. Some of the money for pay raises comes from the planned closing of the maximum-security Crossroads Correctional Center, but corrections officers are correct to ask if this comes at a steep cost.
We all should be asking that question.
Gross wants to make sure inmates aren’t moved to a lower security level simply to enable the money-saving consolidation, a move that could put inmates, workers and possibly the general public at risk. Buchanan County’s prosecutor has mentioned similar concerns about the tension between prosecutors who want to deter drug offenses and violent crime and politicians who are seeking cost savings.
Local officials should be concerned as well, following news that Missouri remains millions of dollars behind on money owed for housing state prisoners at county jails, including more than $500,000 owed as of early this month to Buchanan County. The state should see late payments to counties, which house inmates before transfer to the state prison system, as part of the same problem. County jails, after all, also face their own issues with funding and staffing.
A move to shore up funding for corrections workers is long overdue, but the initiative makes no sense if it comes at the expense of county-level employees or public safety. Corrections officers, and all local officials, are wise to keep a watchful eye on what happens down the road.