By Elise Schmelzer
the denver mail
DENVER — Paul Brackmann had worked as a teacher for 25 years, including stints as principal and assistant principal, and was looking for a slightly different opportunity when he took a teaching job at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex.
He loved his job teaching GED classes and cognitive therapy to people incarcerated at the 1,200-bed facility. She felt that she could build spaces where her students felt comfortable sharing their lives.
This winter, however, a staffing shortage at the complex meant that Brackmann was hired to work corrections officer shifts. He manned the hallways and housing units, keeping an eye out for problems.
Brackmann was fine with the turns at first, he felt like he was helping. But the changes kept coming and there is apparently no end in sight. Now he spends a quarter of his work week on a security shift. His classes are falling behind.
“Everything is wrong,” Brackmann said, speaking as a member of the Colorado WINS union. “I’m a teacher. Teachers shouldn’t be doing that.”
More than a quarter of the roughly 8,000 jobs in the Colorado Department of Corrections are unfilled as prisons struggle to recruit and retain corrections officers, teachers, social workers and health care providers.
Staff shortages mean some prison officers are working double 16-hour shifts more than once a week. Social workers and teachers are taking security shifts, reducing the amount of time they have for their real jobs, like teaching GED classes and helping incarcerated people get into halfway houses. That leads to frustration among inmates and staff alike.
“When we take down programming within our facilities, we have a bunch of guys that we’re just running through the system and going back out on the streets as dangerous criminals who just did time,” Brackmann said. “That’s it. We haven’t had any impact to improve their lives and thus make them safer for society.”
Department of Corrections Director Dean Williams acknowledged the problem, saying he thinks about the staffing crisis every day. Colorado isn’t the only state facing that challenge, he said.
As of June, 1,714 posts were vacant, including 670 corrections officer posts. That’s nearly triple the number of job openings for the department in April 2020. The number of job applications the department receives each month has also dropped from 1,149 in 2019 and 2020 to 719 this year.
“I am concerned about how long we can stay with the type of vacancy,” he said.
The crisis comes as the prison population is expected to grow for the first time in several years. The number of people incarcerated in Colorado prisons has decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, but state forecasters estimate it will increase 43% between the end of fiscal years 2021 and 2028, from 15,434 people to approximately 22,125.
Staff retention has been a concern for the Colorado Department of Corrections for years. Reducing staff turnover has been one of Gov. Jared Polis’ “wildly important goals” for the department for three years. This year, the goal was to reduce the turnover rate from 13% to 12% by June 30. However, as of April, the turnover rate had increased to 22%.
The department paid retention bonuses, offered signing bonuses and lowered the minimum hiring age from 21 to 18, Williams said.
But there appears to be no end in sight, some workers said. It’s a cyclical problem, Brackmann said. Low staffing breeds burnout. Burnout leads to resignations and retirements, which means fewer staff and more burnout.
“When everyone is just tired, we’re not doing the job the way we should,” said Nicole Richardson, corrections officer and Colorado WINS member. “We are just housing people and trying to get them home instead of giving them the kind of care and services that they need.”
For the past several months, Richardson has found himself working two or three 16-hour shifts each week. On those days, she arrives at the San Carlos Correctional Center in Pueblo at 5:45 am and leaves around 10:15 pm She then returns to work at 5:45 am the next day.
Richardson needs the job to support her three children as a single mother. But she feels that she never sees her children. She rarely eats real food, she said, and instead subsists on chips from the gas station or bread and peanut butter that she brings to work.
“It’s really hard to worry about taking care of or trying to rehabilitate inmates when you can’t take care of yourself,” he said.
The understaffing started to become a crisis about six months ago, Williams said. Some of the causes include the fact that work cannot be done remotely, that the job market generally favors workers right now, and that other similar staffing crisis states are aggressively recruiting.
Williams said the department recently lost several candidates when they decided to go to work for Nebraska prisons, which offer a $10,000 sign-on bonus for corporal positions at some facilities.
To make do with fewer staff, Colorado prisons have limited outdoor time for incarcerated people and canceled programming, Williams said.
“That hurts the men and women who are incarcerated,” he said.
Dana Mueller took her job as a case manager at the Department of Corrections more than seven years ago. She enjoyed building relationships with people incarcerated at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City and helping them develop parole plans and apply for jobs and halfway house programs. It is her job to help reduce the risk of a person committing a new crime after her release by helping her plan.
However, in recent months, he has been spending 16 hours a week working security instead of managing cases. You barely have enough time to get the most important case management work done, let alone complete tasks that may be less time-sensitive. It’s triage, she said.
“It was more than a paycheck for me,” said Mueller, who is also a member of WINS. “But when they started to take us to safety, it was like my career was destroyed.”
Brackmann also feels like he’s wasting his experience. He’s not a good corrections officer and doesn’t have the mindset to do the job well, he said, despite basic security training he took while at the academy.
It has also alienated him from his teaching. He has graduated fewer people from his GED program because he has less time to teach. From July 2021 through January, he graduated a dozen students from the program, he said. From January to the end of June, he has only graduated one or two people, he said.
In that time, the waiting list for her class grew to about 40.
The savings from all the open positions cover the cost of overtime and some bonuses, Williams said. The starting salary for a correctional officer is $50,892 a year and the department offers a $200 sign-on bonus for individuals to work at the Buena Vista facility.
Beyond lowering the minimum hiring age, Williams and other department leaders are reconsidering the policy that prohibits employees from using marijuana outside of work hours. They are also considering implementing 12-hour shifts for workers.
The department has had success in some unlikely places. He recruited more than 20 employees from Puerto Rico and expects more workers to come from there. The department’s “fast-track hiring events” provide job openings to eligible candidates on the day of the event in an attempt to get people to work as quickly as possible.
Mueller, Brackmann and Richardson said they don’t feel senior management is listening to their concerns or taking suggested solutions seriously.
“We’ve talked about what would happen if we shut down the facility and then inmates complain,” Richardson said. “They won’t listen to us, but maybe they will listen to the criminals.”
Williams did not say what would happen if the staffing problem continues to worsen, but said he is considering all options and the governor is aware of the problem.
“The mood among the staff has changed,” Williams said. “They look tired. They are tired.
“This is painful,” he added.
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