Tri-county community corrections director says jail staffing shortage is multifaceted

a tan colored building
Tri County Community Corrections in Crookston has a chronic staff shortage, a problem increasingly plaguing county jail in Minnesota.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

As jails around Minnesota struggle to hire and retain staff, administrators say they are trying to adapt to a changing workforce. But as MPR News reporter Dan Gunderson reports, for some, a worker shortage has real daily impacts.

MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer talks with Andrew Larson, executive director of Tri-County Community Corrections about what’s driving the staffing shortage and what policy changes may help.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Jails Around Minnesota are struggling to hire and retain staff. It's a big problem. Jail administrators say they're trying to adapt to a changing workforce, but for some, a worker shortage has real daily impacts. Dan Gunderson has more.

DAN GUNDERSON: Tri County Community corrections operates a 200-bed jail in Crookston that houses prisoners from several Northwestern Minnesota counties. In December of 2021, a worker shortage forced the closure of 60 of those beds. It took about seven months to hire and train enough staff to open that unit again.

JOEY PEDERSON: So this is central control.

DAN GUNDERSON: Jail administrator Joey Pederson says the facility has consistently had open positions for the past couple of years, and hiring remains a challenge.

JOEY PEDERSON: We see it all the time where people apply, we score their applications, we want to set up interviews, and then they don't show up. You try to reach out to them, did something happen, do you need to reschedule, and they ghost you. They're gone.

DAN GUNDERSON: In 2019, the facility hired 17 staff. Four quit within six months. In 2021, the jail hired 35 new staff. Nearly 2/3 quit within six months. Tri County Executive Director Andrew Larson oversees the jail, a 16-bed juvenile center, and probation.

He says being forced to close a pod in the jail led to an intensive review of recruiting, hiring, and training. Tri-county now recruits heavily on social media. And Larson says they spend significantly more time training new employees for the challenging job of corrections officer.

ANDREW LARSON: It went from about 200 hours, which is roughly five to six weeks-- right now, we're averaging anywhere from 400 to 500 hours of training.

DAN GUNDERSON: Those changes have made a difference. Turnover has been reduced. But Larson says the staffing level is still unsustainable in the long-term. Administrators say the situation is complicated.

There's a negative public perception of law enforcement. The pandemic changed worker expectations. A strong economy means lots of jobs are available. But training officer Joshua Plont sees another big issue.

MAN: I do see the people that come to jail are getting more complex. There's more substance abuse and mental health, and sometimes they're combined. And they're further down the road, harder drugs. It makes people act different.

DAN GUNDERSON: Plont says trying to manage an inmate with serious mental illness can quickly overwhelm new staffers.

MAN: It's a high energy environment sometimes. You got to take some physical abuse sometimes. Maybe you get pushed, maybe they might try to hit you possibly. You kind of got to be on high alert status all the time.

DAN GUNDERSON: Larson says he's been in corrections for 22 years. And it's a job that requires strong people skills and the ability to de-escalate confrontational situations. He says many younger job applicants lack those skills. Other jail administrators echo that observation. Larson thinks it's the result of changing communication styles dominated by electronic rather than face-to-face conversation.

ANDREW LARSON: Never in my wildest imagination would I have thought that I would get a letter of resignation by text, but that is common.

DAN GUNDERSON: And Larson says the trickle of job applicants forces administrators to make tough choices from a smaller, sometimes less qualified group of candidates.

ANDREW LARSON: You do almost feel as though you're forced to tolerate more than what you would have tolerated five years ago. And I don't think that that's a good place to be. That's not where I want to be, because I think that's when something is going to go wrong.

We're forced to do that now just to try to keep the doors open. That is not a comforting feeling at all.

DAN GUNDERSON: County and regional jails around the state are experiencing the same trends as the Crookston facility. Minnesota Sheriffs Association Executive Director Bill Hutton says many jails are adequately staffed, but recruitment and retention is a growing problem. And staffing shortages have a ripple effect.

BILL HUTTON: What happens with that-- if you're at a critical staffing level, there's no vacations, know there's no off time, there's mandated overtime. And talk about burnout-- boom, there's your burnout, right?

DAN GUNDERSON: Hutton says the sheriff's association is looking for solutions, but he doesn't have an easy answer. Higher pay might help, but jail administrators say they see fewer people willing to do the high stress, around-the-clock shift work demanded of corrections staff. Hutton says policy makers from County commissioners to state legislators need to pay more attention to corrections staffing challenges.

BILL HUTTON: When it hits the fan, when it's really, really, really bad, then some very difficult choices are going to have to be made.

DAN GUNDERSON: Hutton says local jail administrators are trying creative solutions, but many are limited by a lack of resources. Dan Gunderson, NPR News, Crookston.

CATHY WURZER: Well, now we're going to talk a little bit more about what's happening here. Specifically, we are joined by Andrew Larson. He's on the line. He's the Executive Director of the Tri County Community corrections, which operates in the counties that we were just talking about in that piece. Good job, by the way, by Dan Gunderson. So, Andrew, welcome to the program.

ANDREW LARSON: Yeah, thank you very much for having me.

CATHY WURZER: You've said that turnover rates have been as high as 60%. And that is striking. And this is obviously a very tough job. What do you think needs to change so that workers will stick around?

ANDREW LARSON: Well, that's the million dollar question. And I wish I had a great answer for that. As I indicated in the piece, we've certainly made some adjustments to the way in which we're conducting training, really trying to develop skills on conflict resolution with some of our newer employees, some of the backgrounding that we're doing.

We've also made some adjustments there. But yeah, I don't know that I have a great answer. I don't know that it's simply a matter of pay. Many of the things that the workforce now really looks for, whether it's work from home options or Monday through Friday sorts of jobs, those simply are not realistic in corrections, law enforcement, and some of the many public safety fields.

CATHY WURZER: You're dealing with-- you're operating in Norman, Polk, and Red Lake counties. Does geography have anything to do with it?

ANDREW LARSON: So, yeah, I'm certain that geography does have something to do with it. Because we're in smaller communities, our candidate pool is smaller. However, we are also in pretty close proximity to Grand Forks, North Dakota, which is a much larger area. And actually, many of the applicants that we get end up coming to us from Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

CATHY WURZER: So as I say, it's a tough job. Is it made tougher because of-- I'm thinking about Bill Hutton, Minnesota Sheriffs Association Executive Director Bill Hutton-- says that untreated mental illness in prisons is part of the problem here, which makes the job tougher. Has that been your experience?

ANDREW LARSON: No question. No question at all. Whether it's untreated mental illness, lengthy delays in getting people removed from the jail and placed in an appropriate mental health facility, issues with substance use and some of the withdrawal issues that many of the people end up having to go through-- the unfortunate reality is we end up seeing people oftentimes at their absolute worst. And that's a really difficult thing for people to go through.

I think many of the people that we hire and bring on board, they're really good people. Many may not have the background and familiarity with some of those things. So seeing the struggles that people go through, that's just so much for them to deal with.

And many times, they just indicate, hey, man, I didn't sign on for this. And then they end up leaving.

CATHY WURZER: Is this a problem that needs to be solved, maybe a big policy shift or something like that on the state level to make these jobs sustainable? Because it sounds like you're having a hard time fixing it on your own as a jail operator.

ANDREW LARSON: Yeah. I'd love to see some significant legislative efforts made to divert people with mental illness away from correctional facilities. Unfortunately, jails and prisons have become the sort of catch-all. And we're just really not designed for that. So now you end up mixing people with significant mental health and chemical use disorders with a population of people who have been charged with a wide range of charges.

And that's not in the best interest of the person. It's not in the best interest of our facilities. And it's just-- something does need to change. There's just no question about it.

CATHY WURZER: Andrew, I appreciate your time. I wish I had more time with you. Thank you so much.

ANDREW LARSON: Yes, thank you very much

CATHY WURZER: Andrew Larson is the Executive Director of the Tri County Community Corrections, which operates in Norman, Polk, and Red Lake counties. You can read more of Dan Gunderson's reporting on this issue, by the way, on our website. That is mprnews.org.

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