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Prisons in the Mountain West struggle to hire and retain staff

Stuart and Jen Robinson / Flickr Creative Commons
The Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins.

News brief

More than 200 positions at the Wyoming Department of Corrections are currently vacant – about 20 percent of the entire staff – as worker shortages pinch prisons around the Mountain West, including in New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and in tribal jails.

Paul Martin, an administrator for the Wyoming Department of Corrections, said it’s challenging for prisons to compete with other jobs that pay more, including those at county jails. An online advertisement lists the starting salary for a Wyoming corrections officer at about $18 an hour, while a similar job in Nebraska pays at least $22 an hour, according to the Casper Star Tribune.

“We see fast food chains competitive with us on starting salaries,” Martin said. “Labor goes where the money flows. So in order to compete, you know, it just takes money.”

Martin said understaffing has been a consistent problem at the department for decades, but it’s worsened lately as the nationwide labor shortage persists. He anticipates potential entry-level salary increases to try and hire and retain people.

“There's just fewer people in the workforce today than in years past,” he said. “It is a problem for us, [but] it hasn't reached public safety concern yet.”

Current employees are taking additional overtime shifts to pick up the slack.

Beyond macroeconomic trends, Martin noted that jobs at correctional facilities are challenging, and as is the case in Wyoming, they’re often located in isolated, rural areas.

“Everything you can think of that's wrong in society exists in prisons in a greater density than it does outside,” Martin said.

Martin sees positions in prisons as true public service opportunities for which there will always be demand. However, he said there are so many other places where work is needed right now.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is a contributing journalist and former reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.

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