Understaffed prisons creating dangerous conditions for guards

DENVER -- Colorado's Department of Corrections is sounding the alarm about how understaffed prisons are creating dangerous conditions for the guards.

According to a Problem Solvers investigation, there are 30 correctional officer vacancies at the Denver prison; 34 at the Limon facility; 43 vacancies in Buena Vista; 60 vacancies exist in Sterling. These vacancies represent some of the largest vacancies for this job the state has ever seen.

"Do these vacancies put the safety of correctional officers at risk?" FOX31 Problem Solver Joe St. George asked DOC official Rick Tompkins.

"Yes they do. You start to lose that work-life balance. You have staff working longer hours and it creates more stress. Staff are being faced with being extremely tired," Tompkins said.

And it appears these conditions are creating opportunities for prisoners to strike.

On November 6th at the Sterling facility, four officers were assaulted by prisoners in the dining hall.

On November 15th at the Limon facility, an officer was seriously assaulted by a prisoner with a sharpened weapon.

"Any of those incidents related to staffing? St. George asked.

"I would say yes," Tompkins said.

"Is it getting so bad someone could be killed eventually do you think?" St. George asked.

"I'm not saying it could get that bad; that is not something we think about but it could," Tompkins said.

The state maintains at no time do prisons not have enough staff in them.

However, the cost to keep those staffing levels is beginning to add up for taxpayers.

According to an open records request, the state spent $10.7 million in overtime in 2016; $14.7 million in 2017; and $12.1 million through August of this year.

Why are there so many openings? To some degree it is obvious. Prisons are dangerous places to work and the jobs are located in rural parts of the state.

Despite offering incentives like sign-on bonuses, the pay is only $41,000 a year.

Tompkins says the Department of Corrections at the request of Governor Hickenlooper has gone before lawmakers in the General Assembly in the past few years to request more money to increase pay and perhaps hire more guards. Each time those requests were denied.

"If you are working 60 hours a week, week after week, you are more likely to make a mistake," Governor John Hickenlooper said.

"We have been saying this for three years now," Hickenlooper added.

Lawmakers tell the Problem Solvers one reason requests were denied was because they wanted criminal justice reforms first. State Senator Dominick Moreno, Chair of the State's Joint Budget Committee, says the state will look at the issue again when the new General Assembly begins in January .

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