Prisons across the country have long struggled to recruit and retain staff, but the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the situation is particularly dire. In 2022, the number of people working for state prisons hit its lowest mark in over two decades.

Meanwhile, state prison populations are rising. The number of people behind bars steadily declined starting in 2013 and then drastically dropped during the pandemic, when states released people to ease dangerous COVID-19 conditions, and court systems slowed. But by 2022, the number of people held in state prisons started to bounce back to over 1 million people.

Some states argue they don’t need as many workers as they did, because they closed facilities or privatized services such as health care. And not all corrections staff work inside prisons; some state corrections departments include probation and parole, juvenile facilities or jails. Still, nearly every state saw a drop in the number of people working in corrections, at a time when prison populations in many places are rebounding.

Georgia, where Phillips worked, had half of its correctional officer jobs empty last year, according to state records. In one case, prison employees were so overstretched, they didn’t notice a dead and decomposing body for five days, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The situation has become so bad that West Virginia, Florida and New Hampshire have called in National Guard troops to provide support. In Wisconsin, The New York Times reported staffing ratios kept a prison in lockdown, confining people to their cells for months on end, without visits from family, with no access to the law library and little to no time outdoors for recreation.

And in Missouri, one incarcerated man pulled out his own teeth in 2021 when he was unable to secure a dental appointment due to staffing problems, according to the Jefferson City News Tribune.

The bleak conditions created by too few prison workers can lead to more violence. Locked in their cells for long stretches, people are more likely to act out against staff and fellow prisoners. Short staffing in Mississippi has contributed to assaults against officers. In Nevada, a union for correctional officers blamed the murder of an incarcerated person on low staffing.

Read the full article about the prison staffing shortage by Shannon Heffernan and Weihua Li at The Marshall Project.