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Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
Corrections officer Evelyn Ford patrols the A-Block at the Utah State Prison. Staff shortages are tied to low wages.

UTAH STATE PRISON — There are Utah corrections officers who are working nearly around the clock although they are in charge of maximum security inmates

More than one quarter of all positions at the Utah State Prison are unfilled. Every day, up to 300 people are working 12 to 16 hours at a time, which means some of the most hardened criminals in the state are being supervised by officers who get to work at 5 a.m. and don't get off until 10 p.m.

"We're on the verge of crisis," says Tom Patterson, state Department of Corrections executive director. "We have to fill those spots. I worry about how long we can go at this rate. It frightens me."

Steven Turley, warden at the state's main prison in Draper, recently took the unprecedented step of "asking" every officer to voluntarily take one overtime shift a pay period.

"This is temporary life support for heaven's sake, what we're doing here," said Capt. Matthew Huber, who oversees scheduling and deployment.

With a slew of Thanksgiving Day shifts open this week, Turley will ditch the suit he wears most days for a corrections uniform and head down to the prison's Wasatch Unit to put in eight hours in the trenches.

"If I'm asking my staff to work Thanksgiving, then I have to do it myself," he said.

Salary gaps

State prison staffing is in dire straits — not just on holidays, but every day — say officials and corrections officers whose job it is to house, watch and protect the community from the state's worst lawbreakers.

Prison administrators blame low pay for the inability to attract and retain corrections officers.

Salaries are as much as $5 lower per hour than their counterparts in county jails. Starting pay at the prison is $13.73 an hour. Jails in Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties pay just under $15.50 an hour, while Utah County pays $16.58 an hour. More experience nets more money at the county level, too.

Furthermore, it costs the the prison $22,311 to train each employee — employees who then leave for higher-paying jobs in county jails, Patterson said.

The exodus has worsened the past year, said Huber. He starts drumming up volunteers three weeks in advance to fill thousands of hours of essential shifts. He e-mails local staff, then sends out an "overtime call out" statewide to bring officers in from the prison's Gunnison facility and other communities.

"I've been here 12 years, and I have never been so taxed as it has been in the last year," Huber said. "I'm numb."

So is his wife.

"There are way too many days when the kids ask, 'Did dad come home last night?"' said Huber's wife, Quenette.

Huber's four overtime shifts every two weeks take a toll on his wife and four children, ages 4 to 13.

"We don't see him. He's gone all the time. He tries to have one day off a week, and when he does get that off, he's so exhausted," she said. "He just can't recover."

Some officers are putting in 70 to 75 hours a week.

Yet, this past Wednesday, the prison had 156 vacant spots — more than a fourth of a prison staff that supervises on average 5,600 inmates.

By comparison, educators at the governor's education summit this past week spoke of a critical teacher shortage, reporting 173 total positions unfilled in 39 school districts, home to about 500,000 students.

On the same day, Huber heard through the grapevine that four more of his officers had accepted jobs at the Utah County Jail, where they will make $4.50 to $4.75 more an hour.

"I feel like we're bleeding. We are gushing officers," said officer Evelyn Ford. "There aren't enough people applying, and on top of that, people are leaving."

The prison turnover rate is 13 percent a year. An estimated 3,000 hours a week are filled with officers working overtime, which administrators say leads to burnout and compromised security.

Quenette Huber worries about her husband's health, but she worries about his safety more.

"They are all so tired," she said. "The inmates can see that they're tired. We are scared for their lives."

Quenette Huber said she and other wives understand the risks their husbands take working in the prison, "but we never thought they would be risking their life over staffing issues."

Prison-wise inmates

In the diagnostic unit on A-Block, corrections officer Marvell Smith, 34, evaluates inmates for two or three months to see if they really belong in prison.

"It's extremely stressful," he said. But he signs up for about five overtime shifts a pay period.

Inmates in his block are transferring in and out, so he has to be alert at all times. "We don't get to know them. Some are mentally unstable, some are really upset."

For 11 years, he has seen other officers come and go. "The low pay, the low staffing, the stress of the job — it's all compounding," he said. "It's a very difficult situation."

Today's prisoners are harder to handle, particularly those who belong to a growing prison gang population, prison officials say.

"They are more volatile than they used to be," said Robyn Williams, the prison's deputy director of operations and a 20-year Corrections veteran.

Unpredictable prison culture requires seasoned officers to try to read the behavior of prison-wise inmates with years behind bars. But nearly half of the department's 562 officers have been in uniform less than three years.

Inexperience can be deadly in the gang unit, where understanding inmates is critical to warding off violence. Some gang members go into automatic attack mode when they see a rival gang member.

"Can you imagine a one-year or a two-year officer handling these kinds of matters?" Turley asked. "That would kill us."

Near a wall with pictures showing rows of shanks and other weapons collected from their unit, Sgt. Travis Knorr, an 11-year gang unit veteran, said opening and closing doors at the right time and keeping rival gang members separated is crucial to safety.

"One wrong door and someone is going to die," he said.

Knorr and other veteran officers make only on average $2 to $3 more an hour than novice hires. The result is "salary compression," where the gap between starting wages and veteran wages shrinks. Prison officials say it creates a disincentive for staff members to apply for promotions because they don't want to take on more responsibility with little additional pay.

Earlier this year, the Legislature gave the Corrections Department extra money for salaries. Officers received raises of up to 9 percent. But officials say it wasn't good enough.

It did bump Ford's pay from $14.77 an hour to $15.73.

Ford, 30, moved from the Grand County Jail 18 months ago to the prison for a job that didn't pay more but offered potential experience in forensics, public relations and special security details.

"I love putting my uniform on every day," she said

But with first-degree felons being moved from county jails back to the prison, her job is becoming more tense. "We are creating a dangerous situation for the people here who are on duty," she said.

"I understand that people want to be safe, but we can't just put a Band-Aid on it."

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