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Prison officer hiring push is on, but jobs aren't easy to fill

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Hundreds of cells line the walls inside of Stillwater prison.
The Minnesota Department of Corrections is hunting for 67 new correctional officers across its prison system over the next year and about a dozen more in the years ahead. Here, hundreds of cells line the walls inside of Stillwater prison in Bayport, Minn.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Bunches of bright balloons waving in a June breeze seem out of place just outside the fence to a maximum-security prison housing some of Minnesota's most violent offenders.  

The balloons point the way to a one-stop hiring event — a somewhat urgent endeavor now that the Minnesota Department of Corrections is hunting for 67 new correctional officers across its prison system over the next year and about a dozen more in the years ahead.

The Oak Park Heights and Stillwater prisons, where another event will be held Tuesday, are in line for a raft of reinforcements. None too soon, according to present officers.

"Having more staff and the promise of more staff is definitely improving things as far as people's morale," said Lt. Nick Witter, a veteran guard at Oak Park Heights.

The Legislature approved the systemwide staffing surge — the biggest in at least a generation — and supplied the agency $10 million to beef up the correctional officer ranks and to keep existing staff from leaving. The money follows two on-duty deaths in the past year and other violent encounters.

From mid-2012 until now, agency data show there have been 817 disciplinary incidents for inmates who assaulted a staff member, some using weapons and causing serious harm or worse. More than half have occurred at Oak Park Heights and Stillwater, the highest-security prisons in Minnesota that are a mere 2.5 miles apart.

"There's no doubt there is risk in this work. And staffing will in fact help us to mitigate and minimize some of that risk," said Minnesota Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell. "Not all of it. We will never remove all of it."

As of last week, Minnesota had a correctional officer complement of 1,969, with about 40 vacancies. They watch over more than 9,300 inmates in 10 facilities.

Balloons help point the way to a correctional officer hiring event.
Balloons help point the way to a correctional officer hiring event at the state prison in Stillwater Thursday. A second hiring event is set for Tuesday.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

So, there are actually many more slots to fill than just the new ones lawmakers authorized. The challenge is to find qualified candidates for a difficult working environment amid a tight labor market. Nationwide, jails and prison systems are dealing with strained staffs and harder hiring situations.

"It is critical public safety service work and we need to tell that story better," Schnell said.

'Can't just close doors'

The staffing situation came into sharper focus last July when officer Joseph Gomm was fatally attacked by an inmate inside an industrial building on the Stillwater prison's sprawling campus. A second on-duty death occurred about two months later when officer Joseph Parise suffered a medical emergency not long after assisting a fellow officer involved in an inmate altercation.

The Stillwater prison is actually located in Bayport, not far from the St. Croix River. A replacement to Minnesota's original territorial prison, the present facility opened in 1914.

Because of its age and architecture style, it is more staff-intensive than other prisons in Minnesota. Four wings with four tiers of cells house the roughly 1,500 inmates — about one-third of whom are serving time for murder.

As Associate Warden Victor Wanchena notes, that need for officers is constant.

"Being a 24/7 operation, we can't just close the doors and walk away at the end of the day," he said.

Wanchena served as a greeter during the first hiring event held in the old warden's quarters last week.

"First off, welcome. I'm really happy you are here today and have some interest in corrections," Wanchena told a trio of applicants who appeared at the main door of the prison for a tour. He promised to give them a look at "the day in the life of an officer would be like, and hopefully answer any questions and dispel any myths."

Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell discusses prison staffing
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell discusses prison staffing during an interview in his St. Paul office on June 5, 2019.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

The on-site event is a newer tactic for the corrections agency, which for some time has counted on applicants to start first at the agency headquarters in an office park in St. Paul. Schnell said one goal is to expedite hiring.

"In the past, it could take weeks, if not months, for somebody who applied for a corrections officer job to be hired," Schnell said. "Today, we think we've got it to the point where we think we can turn that in a matter of days, 72 hours, five days to make somebody an offer."

Over a couple hours, applicants can hand in their resumes, take assessments, sit for interviews then tour a place they could wind up as corrections officers.

The hires will be spread across the 10 correctional facilities, but tilt toward a few with acute needs. That includes Faribault, Minn., Oak Park Heights and Stillwater.

New officers go through intensive, six-week training academies, participate in some job shadowing and get matched with a mentor.

Schnell wants 67 of an eventual 78 new positions filled within a year. Schnell's boss, Gov. Tim Walz, had sought funding for 120 new officers in all.

The American Federation of State County Municipal Employees Council 5, which has a local chapter that represents officers, had argued the need was substantially higher.

AFSCME officials declined comment on the latest hiring push. The union recently sued the agency over a decision by Schnell to move officers to 10- or 12-hour work days instead of the current eight hours in exchange for longer downtime. Contract negotiations are also about to begin.

Hiring struggle

The Minnesota Correctional Facility at Oak Park Heights.
As of last week, Minnesota had a correctional officer complement of 1,969, with about 40 vacancies. They watch over more than 9,300 inmates in 10 facilities.
Peter Cox | MPR News 2018

Across the country, corrections jobs are getting tougher to fill.

Capt. Mark Maslonkowski knows firsthand. He runs the jail in Stearns County, Minn., where there are 14 openings now.

"Staffing has been a struggle for us solidly for at least the last 18 to 24 months," Maslonkowski said. "We have struggled significantly to find and retain qualified staff. It's an industry problem."

The number of applicants is down. People skip interviews or fail background checks. Minimum qualifications have been ratcheted back to attract interest for the demanding jobs.

"A 24/7, 365 job. We work nights. We work weekends. We work holidays. We work long hours," Maslonkowski said. "If somebody calls in sick, we have a mandatory minimum staffing, you're going to have to stay."

Recent national studies of correctional workforce woes point to climbing rates of positions that sit open for longer periods. Undesirable hours and lower pay relative to other criminal justice careers are identified as contributing causes.

Nationally, the mean wage for correctional officers in 2017 was just shy of $48,000 — below what typical probation officers and police earned, according to a RAND Corporation report done in conjunction with jail and prison officials. 

In Minnesota, pay for most state correctional officers ranges from about $37,000 to $67,000 per year, depending on experience and classification level.

In their latest drive, state officials have played up the robust health insurance and other benefits, including possible retirement by age 55. The department has made special recruiting pitches to people hunting for new careers and from minority backgrounds.

Prior experience in law enforcement isn't a must. Some applicants have never stepped foot inside a jail or prison — another reason Schnell wanted on-site hiring events.

"We think it is potentially important for candidates to say maybe the first time I go in shouldn't be after I'm hired and I'm in that uniform and all that," he said. "Maybe I should see what does it feel like, what does it look like, what is my sense, what do I hear, what do I learn?"

Rewarding career

Greg Thompson has applied for one of the 67 new correctional officer jobs
Greg Thompson, a truck driver from Ellsworth, Wis., has applied for one of the 67 new correctional officer jobs the Department of Corrections expects to fill in the next year. He attended a hiring event at the Stillwater prison on Thursday.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Greg Thompson was among a couple dozen to come by Stillwater last week. He's toured the prison before and studied criminal justice in college. In his early 50s, Thompson is out to reboot his career.

"I need to choose a career path that is a little more fulfilling for myself," he said.

Thompson is a truck driver from Ellsworth, Wis., and is used to working at odd times now. So, a prison schedule would offer desired stability.

"I'd like to be closer to home," he said. "Currently, I'm home every other weekend and getting a little old for that."

Lt. Witter, the Oak Park Heights officer, came over to Stillwater prison to assist with candidate interviews.

"We can pretty much get an idea if somebody has got the right attitude pretty fast," Witter said, describing how he takes note of body language and ease of conversation. "I want to see people that can be effective communicators because that's the biggest piece of our job."

Witter is glad the department is bringing prospects to the prisons from the start. He said that can help cut against stereotypes of what prison work is all about.

"People think maximum security and they have these visions of movies and what you see in the media," Witter said. "And all the sudden they come in, and they're like, 'Man, this place is clean. Wow, it's quiet. Wow, it's just what I expected.' It's kind of a culture shock for them."

Lt. Jennefer Meyer has worked in three prisons over 35 years, with Stillwater her planned last stop before retirement. Like Witter, she welcomes the hiring surge.

"The turnover right now, it's been pretty rough with retirements. A lot of it is just retirements and filling in positions. Some of it is the media, and the fear and the things that have gone on," Meyer said. "This really is a wonderful place to work and a positive thing that we do, with the offenders and the staff. It's been a rewarding career."

She remembers feeling apprehensive at first, but reassures those just starting out.

"It's OK to go in there not knowing," Meyer said. "Because we're going wrap our arms around you and give you the foundations and building blocks to get you to be successful. Because we want everyone to succeed."