Across the United States, prisons and jails are struggling to maintain staffing levels. Staffing shortages are not a new phenomenon in carceral facilities. The incarcerated population has increased by 500 percent over the past 40 years nationwide, resulting in the expansion of the carceral workforce. The carceral workforce experiences high staff turnover with most having fewer than five years of experience. In some state prisons, annual officer turnover rates can be as high as 55 percent. Program or administrative staff have, in many cases, been transitioned to roles as carceral officers during significant staff shortages. At a high-security facility in Illinois, approximately 20 carceral officers are augmented each day, and officers work more than 60 hours or more of overtime per week.
The carceral staff shortage presents an organic opportunity to move toward evidence-based solutions to community safety that exist outside the criminal legal system. Some regions have already attempted to hire more staff using incentives and increased pay. However, an evidence-based response would instead shift resources from the carceral apparatus to more just, community-based initiatives. To avoid the most dire consequences of lack of staffing and overcrowded facilities, prisons and jails should release as many individuals as possible to preserve the health of people behind the walls and staff. Decarceration has been recommended by the American Public Health Association as well as the Presidential COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.