Staff shortages have long been a challenge for prison agencies, given the low pay and grueling nature of the work. But the coronavirus pandemic — and its impact on the labor market — has pushed many corrections systems into crisis. Officers are retiring and quitting in droves, while officials struggle to recruit new employees. And some prisons whose populations dropped during the pandemic have seen their numbers rise again, exacerbating the problem.

“There are dozens of reasons to leave and very few to stay,” said Brian Dawe, national director of One Voice United, a nonprofit supporting corrections officers. “Understaffing, poor pay, poor benefits, horrendous working conditions. … Officers and their families in many jurisdictions have had enough.”

In Georgia, some prisons report up to 70% vacancy rates. In Nebraska, overtime hours have quadrupled since 2010, as fewer officers are forced to work longer hours. Florida has temporarily closed three prisons out of more than 140 facilities because of understaffing, and vacancy rates have nearly doubled there in the last year. And at federal prisons across the country, guards are picketing in front of their facilities over understaffing, while everyone from prison teachers to dentists is pulled in to cover security shifts.

At a Georgia state House of Representatives hearing on prison conditions in September, a corrections officer called in to testify, interrupting his shift to tell lawmakers how dire conditions had become.

On a “good day,” he told lawmakers, he had maybe six or seven officers to supervise roughly 1,200 people. He said he had recently been assigned to look after 400 prisoners by himself. There weren’t enough nurses to provide medical care.

“All the officers … absolutely despise working there,” said the officer, who didn’t give his name for fear of retaliation.

Employers from construction companies to restaurants are having difficulty hiring and keeping people. Nearly 3% of American workers, 4.3 million, quit their jobs in August, according to new data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the stakes are higher in prisons, where having fewer guards means significantly more dangerous conditions for incarcerated people. And for the officers left behind, worsening shortages have made an already difficult job unbearable, many say.

Inside prisons, growing shortages mean a rise in lockdowns. Restrictions that might have begun as a way to stop the spread of COVID-19 have continued because there aren’t enough guards to supervise activities. Some incarcerated people say they can’t take classes, participate in group therapy sessions or even work out in the recreation yard or take a shower. That can force those in general population into de facto solitary confinement, and those already in segregation into near-total lockdown.

Read the full article about corrections officer shortages by Keri Blakinger, Jamiles Lartey, Beth Schwartzapfel, Mike Sisak, and Christie Thompson at The Marshall Project.