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Tennessee state prisons have only half the correctional officers they need

East Tennessee jails told 10News they're facing similar staffing challenges. It can make maintaining a safe environment difficult.

MORGAN COUNTY, Tenn. — In Tennessee, state prisons said they have only half of the correctional officers they need. The vacancies are costing taxpayers millions in overtime pay and limiting the state's ability to house inmates.

"Correctional officer staffing is at the top of the [concern] list," Tennessee Department of Corrections Commissioner Tony Parker told lawmakers on Oct. 27.

TDOC data showed more than 1,000 openings for correctional officer jobs in late October. That's roughly 45 percent, according to TDOC.

Hiring for those positions can be difficult. 

"We have more and more businesses coming into the state every day wanting to hire folks," said Assistant Commissioner of Prison Operations Lee Dotson. "But, the pool of potential applicants seems to be decreasing."

In Hamblen County, the sheriff said low pay often turns candidates away if the partially underground jail and constantly overcrowded rooms don't dissuade them from working there first.

"The pay is absolutely ridiculous," Sheriff Esco Jarnigan said. "Right now, we are 12 employees short."

He said it's difficult to retain the candidates they hire because of the jail's ongoing problems.

Credit: WBIR

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"We have almost an assault of some fashion every day," Jarnigan said. "I don't blame them for leaving because of the low pay and the working conditions."

In state prisons, data shows roughly a third of new correctional officers left the job within the first six months during FY20-21. That's a big improvement from the 46 percent of new officers who left during FY19-20, but still a concern.

Increased pay helped TDOC retain and recruit for a bit in 2019.

"We saw an immediate increase," Dotson said. "We were able to maintain those numbers up to the point of about where the pandemic started."

Now, TDOC is trying bonuses for those who decide to stay and those who refer candidates for the open positions. The Knox County Sheriff's Office is getting creative too.

"We've lowered the age for corrections. Instead of 21, it's now 18," he said. "A couple of weeks ago... everybody within this agency at that time that was employed got $750"

Law enforcement leaders hope gestures like that will keep the staff they desperately need. 

"There's a lot that can be done," Dotson said. "If somebody wants to embark on a public safety career, the Tennessee Department of Correction is a great place to start that career."