Reducing Corrections Staff Turnover Through Evidence-based Strategies

Posted by The Carey Group on
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Each year, the United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs via the Bureau of Justice Statistics provides reports detailing jail inmate and prisoner statistics and staffing levels. These reports underscore a pressing issue in correctional settings: as the population under supervision grows, there's a dwindling number of staff to manage them. 

The 36th annual Bureau of Justice Statistics Jail Inmates in 2022 report indicates that, despite a national decline of individuals in corrections settings, the ratio of correctional officers to individuals in their care and custody continues to grow. There were three jail inmates for every correctional officer in midyear 2020. By midyear 2022, there were four jail inmates for every correctional officer. The 2020 ratio is reflective of reduced admissions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The 2022 report also found that the number of corrections staff employed at local jails decreased four percent by midyear 2022; compounding the five percent decrease in corrections staff from midyear 2020 to midyear 2021.  

The Bureau of Justice Statistics 97th annual Prisoners in 2022 report highlights the United States prison population was 1,230,100 at year-end 2022, an increase of two percent from year-end 2021 (1,205,100). This increase ends eight consecutive years of a decline in the total prison population. It was the first combined state and federal increase in prison population since 2013. These numbers directly impact workforce issues in corrections settings, staff wellness, and staff turnover rates.  

Impact of Employee Turnover in Corrections Settings 

While all workplaces are impacted by employee turnover, there are specific challenges and consequences of high turnover rates in corrections settings.  

Challenges include: 

  • Meeting required minimum staffing levels 
  • Inmates unsupervised for extended periods 
  • Impact on overtime budget 
  • Poor or diminished work performance 
  • Burnout 
  • Absenteeism 
  • Lack of experienced employees and leaders 
  • Larger caseloads/limited time to interact with inmates 
  • Less time for training and professional development 

The primary consequence of high turnover rates in corrections settings is safety, which often results in more frequent lockdowns. Additionally, high corrections staff turnover and vacant positions can directly impact a facility’s ability to properly function, focus on professional development, and effectively implement and deliver evidence-based practices and programs to those in their care and custody. 

Several factors contribute to high turnover rates in corrections environments: 

  • Stressful and dangerous nature of the job 
  • Poor compensation 
  • Work hours 
  • Mandatory overtime 
  • Inexperienced staff 
  • Low morale  
  • Lack of focus on/time for professional development/advancement 

Corrections entities around the nation are experiencing the impact of staff turnover and shortages. According to “Staff Recruitment and Retention in Corrections: The Challenges and Ways Forward,” from 2020 to 2030, correction and bailiff staff employment will decline by seven percent. They also estimate more than 35,000 employment openings annually because of turnover. Almost half of corrections agencies in the United States will experience annual officer turnover rates from 20–30 percent. It’s estimated that 38 percent of corrections staff leave within the first year and almost 50 percent leave within five years of employment.  

State Examples of Corrections Staff Crisis 

These themes continue at federal prisons around the country. A case manager at the Federal Detention Center in Miami reports being four-six months behind in the processing of First Step Act cases. Many individuals who could have and should have been released remain incarcerated because of the volume of cases carried by case managers.  

Corrections Staff Turnover: Effects On Justice-involved Individuals 

Employee turnover and staff shortages have a ripple effect on the well-being of people in corrections settings and on the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs.  

As detailed in Colorado and federal findings, employee turnover directly impacts an individual’s ability to access resources and complete programs designed to improve their outcomes and reduce recidivism. Colorado Workers for Innovative and New Solutions (WINS) Executive Director Hilary Glasgow observed that, even with a smaller inmate population in corrections settings, staffing shortages result in justice-involved individuals experiencing re-entry into the community without receiving programming while in the corrections setting. This concern is recognized by those in the Colorado corrections settings. One individual stated, “We are basically being warehoused. There are very few programs or educational classes…no one wants to work here.” 

Strategies for Overcoming Corrections Employee Turnover 

A Mercer Global Talent Trends 2022-2203 study details ten factors, identified by employees, that all employers should consider and implement in their workforce strategy to ensure their employees thrive: 

  1. Feeling valued for my contributions 
  2. Work that fulfills me 
  3. Having fun at work 
  4. Sense of belonging 
  5. Manager who advocates for me 
  6. Empowered to make decisions 
  7. Opportunities to learn new skills 
  8. Ability to integrate life and work 
  9. Organizational purpose I am proud of 
  10. Leaders who set a clear direction 

While these factors serve as a great foundation, addressing corrections staff turnover requires additional unique strategies because of the specialized skills required to do the job and the high safety and security expectations that must be met.  

Implement Staff Wellness Initiatives to Improve Job Satisfaction and Mental Health 

Corrections leaders should encourage and model wellness in the workplace by promoting and participating in wellness initiatives and programs such as fitness and activity challenges, providing access to healthy food and mental health, regularly recognizing employee achievements and exemplary performance, supporting flexible schedules when possible, encouraging breaks and fun engagement opportunities, as well as frequently communicating intentions and inspiring and supporting employees to lead and learn in their roles.  

Recognizing the increased stress that corrections employees experience, focusing on corrections staff wellness will not only help reduce corrections staff turnover, but it will also empower employees to thrive in the workplace. 

Invest in Professional and Organizational Development Practices to Support Career Growth and Skill Enhancement 

Effective justice staff training is essential to improving outcomes and to creating a positive work environment. For training to take hold, corrections agencies must have a plan and a budget for reinforcing and supporting ongoing professional development throughout a correctional employee’s career. Reinforcement can take many forms, including coaching, providing feedback, and celebrating achievements.  

Several factors should be incorporated into ongoing professional and organizational development practices including supervisor participation, flexible training options, skill practice, and relevant, current, evidence-based practices and research. Additional information about these factors is detailed in the Carey Group’s 6 Factors to Improve Justice Staff Training one-pager.  

Explore Training, Career Advancement Opportunities, and Mentorship Programs as Tools to Retain Talent 

Retaining talent requires a multi-faceted approach. In a 24-hour workplace, training, mentorship programs, and career advancement opportunities need to be available at all hours. 

On-demand, tailored, expert-developed e-learning platforms are one way that corrections agencies can meet training requirements as well as offer their employees opportunities to expand their skills and knowledge through self-directed online learning.  

Select Training Topics that Enhance Justice Staff Skills 

Examples of online training topics that are beneficial to corrections staff include:  

With expanded skills, knowledge, and experience, corrections employees are in a prime position to be considered for mentorship programs and career advancement opportunities.  

Mentors are essential in the workplace and, like training, are integral to professional development. Mentorship programs can be structured or may develop organically. Many times, seasoned corrections professionals will be asked to mentor new and/or junior colleagues to help guide, coach, and build their skills and knowledge. This effort simultaneously builds a talent pipeline within the workforce. Mentorship programs should be available at all levels within the organization and should ensure equal opportunities for all corrections employees.  

Career advancement opportunities are a great way to retain corrections employees. Employees who have participated in ongoing mentoring, corrections training, and professional development will be ready to take on new responsibilities and leadership roles. The possibility and reality of advancing within the organization reinforces one’s commitment to the agency, increases motivation, encourages training and professional development, typically increases salary, and strengthens the employee/employer connection. 

Overcoming employee turnover in corrections settings is possible. Focusing on corrections staff wellness, investing in training and professional and organizational development practices, encouraging mentorship opportunities, and offering career advancement opportunities, are several ways that workforce issues in corrections can be addressed. 

Related Reading and Resources 

Bureau of Justice Statistics: Jail Inmates in 2022 – Statistical Tables 

Bureau of Justice Statistics: Prisoners in 2022 – Statistical Tables 

Staff Recruitment and Retention in Corrections: The Challenge and Ways Forward 

Bureau of Prisons Union Leader Asks Biden 'to Prioritize and Address' Staffing 

Solving the Problem of Understaffed Jails and Prisons 

As Prison Populations Rise, States Face a Stubborn Staffing Crisis 

Strategies to Improve Training and Retention of Correctional Officers 

Mental Health of Staff at Correctional Facilities in the United States During the COVID-19 Pandemic 

Prison Education Programs: What to Know 

Real Mentorship Starts with Company Culture, Not Formal Programs 


Related Resources from Carey Group 

Self-paced eLearning Courses 

Justice Staff Training Tips Handout 

Staff Training 

Leaders should actively try to implement organizational strategies and best practices that reduce exhaustion, promote optimism, and improve outcomes. If you don’t know where to start or need help, Carey Group’s organizational development can help you build a strong, healthy culture that increases staff retention and excellence in the workplace. Talk to a Carey Group consultant today, to get started!