Executive Director Reports

Another wrong turn?

 Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

Fair pay and a voice on the job make for safer, more secure prisons. Bruce Rauner’s out to change that.


Last year on Mother’s Day, a riot broke out at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in Nebraska. Inmates took over sections of the facility, set fires, assaulted correctional officers and killed two of their fellow prisoners. After order was restored, state investigators identified “officer shortages and high turnover” as key causes of the riot, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Similar personnel problems are mounting in corrections departments around the country, especially in states where correctional employees do not have collective bargaining rights.

The job of a correctional officer is difficult and demanding—and as the US economy has improved in recent years, there are other alternatives available to job-seekers for the same or higher pay.

The plain fact is that in many states, correctional employees just aren’t paid enough for the jobs they do. The average hourly wage is just $21.59 nationwide. In Missouri, correctional officers start at only $14 per hour.

But in states like Massachusetts, New Jersey and Illinois, the hourly rate starts at $24 and can rise to more than $30 over the course of an officer’s career.

That’s because employees in those states have been able to come together through their union to secure fair wages and step plans that grow their salaries with their experience. That recognition for the skills gained over years on the job is missing in many states. The WSJ reported that poor morale among Nebraska’s prison workforce was due in large part to long-time officers earning no more than new recruits.

Working in a prison is flat-out dangerous. Correctional officers have one of the highest rates of nonfatal workplace injuries of any occupational group—mainly due to assaults and other violent acts.

With these kinds of challenging conditions, employees don’t stick around unless there’s a strong incentive to do so. But in many states, wages don’t increase much over time. In New Mexico, the overwhelming majority of correctional employees leave within three years.

When turnover is high and hiring difficult, there aren’t enough staff to do the job and employees are required to work excessive amounts of overtime. That makes a hard job even more difficult and a dangerous job a lot less safe.

In Arizona, correctional employees have sued the state because staffing levels are so low. A deputy warden left alone in the yard with 80 inmates was so badly beaten that he now has two titanium plates in his head.

Few if any of these low-wage, non-union, so called “right-to-work” states have recognized the obvious: To recruit employees into such demanding jobs, they must pay fair and competitive wages. To retain employees with accumulated skills and knowledge, there must be step plans that allow them to move up the economic ladder over time. And to maintain morale and strengthen commitment, employees need the right to have a union that can enable them to address unsafe and unfair working conditions.

Correctional employees here in Illinois who are members of AFSCME have that voice. Their wages are competitive. They have a step plan that fosters retention. They have decent health insurance and pension benefits that allow dignity in retirement. When problems arise on the job—which they do with frustrating frequency—employees can come together through their union to make their concerns heard. And over decades they’ve won rights that foster safety on the job, provide opportunities for promotion, ensure fairness in job assignment, and assure assistance in the event of layoffs.

But as it is in so many other respects, today Illinois is moving in the wrong direction when it comes to correctional policies. Governor Rauner is pushing to freeze employee wages and steps for four years, making correctional jobs less competitive. He’s trying to drastically increase employee health care costs. He wants to decrease the hours employees are paid for overtime, increasing the incentive for management to mandate excessive amounts of OT. He’s demanding so-called “merit” bonuses that will foster favoritism. And he’s trying to undermine the ability of employees to come together through their union to have a voice on the job.

Illinois has a highly skilled, committed workforce that maintains order and security in our prison system, despite persistent challenges of overcrowding and lack of staff. But Bruce Rauner’s unrelenting hostility to unions, his determination to impose his own harsh economic terms, and his indifference to the dangers faced daily by correctional employees threaten to reverse that progress and plunge Illinois prisons into the disarray that besets a growing number of states. It will be up to all of us to make sure that doesn’t happen.