CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Low pay -- contributing to high turnover rates and mandatory overtime -- is the single biggest safety threat for correctional officers in state prisons, legislators were advised Monday.
"You work 16 hours a day, and go home and sleep three or four hours. ... You're just not on top of your game, and the inmates know it," Jack Ferrell, a union organizer for the Communications Workers of America and former correctional officer at Moundsville and Mount Olive penitentiaries, told a legislative interim committee.
Ferrell said he was working 16-hour shifts five days a week at Mount Olive when he left the job.
"It's a dangerous job," he said of corrections work. "I probably didn't go a week without somebody telling me they were going to kill me."
Elaine Harris, international representative for the CWA, said sleep deprivation from working double shifts is a major stressor for correctional officers, especially those who commute two hours or more each way.
"That's probably one of the worst things that causes us problems," said Harris, who said prison employees have gotten into auto accidents caused by falling asleep at the wheel.
Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein told an interim committee looking at worker safety issues that there's a 6 percent to 10 percent turnover rate among correctional officers, with 150 vacancies currently out of 2,200 officer positions.
Rubenstein said low pay is a factor, with federal prisons in the state hiring away correctional officers by offering salaries that are $15,000 higher than state pay.
"Even if we paid a lot better, there's a lot of things that lead to burnout and turnover," he said.
Rubenstein said he believes correctional officers generally are safe on the job, noting, "We have come a long way with our training, our equipment, our uniforms, and our policies."
He said that even at maximum-security Mount Olive, most of the inmates do not present safety risks.