27 October, 2021

Who Wants to Work in a Prison?

From my limited vantage point, morale and attendance by prison employees seem to be at all-time lows. I say this three and a half years after reading a newspaper article about the critical staff shortages faced by corrections departments in Missouri, Kansas, and what was then seventeen other states. Since then, the problem has grown quite a bit worse.

On any given day, two-person operations at ERDCC are handled by individuals. Also, non-custody employees, including recreation staff and caseworkers, frequently have to do jobs that guards should be performing. Overtime is rampant. Ditto, mandated shifts. This is a real problem with wide-ranging effects.

I don't understand why the job economy's so bad right now, but I know that understaffing isn't limited to prisons. The COVID pandemic vacated many places of business, and a lot of employers now find themselves scrabbling to find people willing to work for them. A truck-stop gas station here in Bonne Terre is reportedly offering a $1,000 signing bonus. A news report said that professions previously requiring applicants to have a high level of education now accept those whose academic career went no further than high school. To work as a guard for the Missouri DOC reportedly takes nothing more than a state ID proving you're at least eighteen years old.

Caseworkers can be seen on many weekends (never mind their Monday-through-Friday schedule), supervising the dining hall, conducting wing walkthroughs in housing units, or helping guards do custody counts. When there's no one available to fill in, those counts, during which every prisoner is locked in their cell, can take an extra hour or more to complete, as the two people running a house take turns. One walks from wing to wing while the other stays in the control module, then they switch. This would be fine, except what if some emergency arose? Around here, you often can't tell when bad shit's afoot.

Worse yet, ERDCC's medical services have deteriorated since I first encountered their profound indifference, three years ago. The facility hasn't had its own on-site doctor in two years, and one of its two nurse practitioners quit a couple of months ago. I've submitted five Health Service Request forms for the same issue and have yet to even be seen by a triage nurse.

To keep the place hobbling along, programs and services are frequently cut without warning. For this reason, some non-essential departments, such as Clothing Issue and Property, are closed more often than they're open. Time out of our cells is curtailed several times a week, due to insufficient staff-to-prisoner ratios. Meals regularly run late because there isn't enough staff to allow us out until after the next shift change takes place.

I can't blame anyone working here for their lack of enthusiasm. Working in a prison surely sucks. The buildings are gross, the jobs are pretty unrewarding, and the residents, even at their best-behaved, can tax one's patience. The employee culture looks to be one of lighthearted joking around, but it also fosters gruff indifference. My guess is that jobs here attract two types of people: those who want to do as little as possible, and those who feel that they have something to prove. Neither makes for a great employee.

I've argued for years that the Missouri Department of Corrections should significantly increase entry-level employee wages. I believe this now more than ever. By raising wages for correctional employees, the DOC could be more exacting in their hiring and employee-retention standards. By onboarding only people with higher educations, they'd increase the likelihood of facilities keeping with departmental policies. By asking a bit more from employees, in every area – from behavioral compliance to dress codes – they'd lower the odds of costly lawsuits by aggrieved prisoners and mistreated workers, as well as promoting healthier work environments where people with lower stress levels get sick less often and prisoners aren't as likely to get frustrated and lash out violently.

Pay my warders better, Missouri; that's what this boils down to. I'm tired of seeing violence on the yard, missing out on precious activities, and being locked down for entire days, all because inadequate staffing is unconducive to vigilance.

06 October, 2021

Another Night, Another Death

Ernest Johnson was executed by the state of Missouri last night. His killing was carried out by lethal injection at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center, right here where I'm confined. While someone in a small room administered an intravenous poison to Johnson's body, the dining hall served the prison population barbecue pork and a baked potato.

The recreation building was closed for the occasion, so I didn't go to work in the afternoon or evening. The same went for the library. Factory workers had their usual hours. The rumor was that everyone would lock down for the 4:30 afternoon count, as usual, then not be allowed out until morning, once the body of Ernest Johnson was good and cold.

The previous Missouri execution took place in May of 2020. ERDCC wasn't locked down then, but in the years before I got here, lockdowns on execution nights were de rigueur, as if to emphasize the fucked-upedness of the circumstances. You'd think that someone running a prison would want to de-emphasize the occasion – if not distracting the institution's population by showing a good movie, at least not eliminating all recreational opportunities.

In the hours before the execution, many prisoners in my wing grumbled about losing rec, as well as about the twin possibilities of a lockdown and a dinner of PB & J. My cellmate started to complain; I shut him down. A guy's dying! Neither cell confinement nor a brown-bag meal bore out, but that isn't the point.

I could go on a tangent about the circuitous logic of killing someone to show that killing is wrong. I won't. Nor will I weigh in on the constitutionality of executing a mentally deficient person. What astonishes me is the concern that these executions engender among those here. No one gave a tinker's fart for Johnson, of course, they just didn't want to lose crucial chess-playing hours. I want to ask where our heads are. More urgently, I want to know where are our hearts.