Help Wanted! Staffing troubles also impacting jails, prisons

Illinois is struggling to keep or attract women to be corrections officers, despite a starting...
Illinois is struggling to keep or attract women to be corrections officers, despite a starting salary well over $40,000 annually.(25 News)
Published: Nov. 5, 2021 at 2:31 PM CDT
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PEKIN (25 NEWS) - A lack of corrections officers is leading to mandatory overtime, potentially leaving fatigued, overworked staffers on duty... again.

Right now, the hours spent behind bars in Illinois are longer for staff members than normal.

And hiring for these positions can take months.

They may even be called in on a day off, which is more likely for women.

Especially because each time a new female is sent to the Tazewell County Jail in Pekin, they prefer a woman is there to check for weapons and other contraband, called “the pat down”.

“(It) puts more work on our officers,” said Cmdr. Jennifer Stanton, an 18 year veteran of those light colored hallways.

At this point, she’s scheduling mandatory overtime for her female staff, roughly four days a week.

“There’s still a lot of overtime. I mean, my budget’s blown on overtime through this year,” said Sheriff Jeffrey Lower.

He’s now paying those women for two hours, whenever they’re called back in to pat down a new, female detainee.

The pay stays at two hours, whether that job takes :15 minutes or less, even if they never even put on a uniform.

“Anything and everything we can come up with to try and relieve at least a little bit of the strain,” Lower said.

This past summer was especially difficult, according to the superintendent.

“Some people were doing 3-4 doubles a week. Doubles? So that’s 16 hours,” said Stacey Kempf, who’s been running Tazewell’s jail for the past two years, after spending 30 years with IDOC, the Illinois Department of Corrections. “Overtime sometimes drives people away.”

Indeed, her jail started 2021 with 12 female corrections officers.

Six have since left for other jobs, often within law enforcement or firefighting.

Kempf says they need 1 woman on duty 24/7 to fill the 168 hours in every week.

“If you, you know, you’re tired, you lose your focus, you miss things that you normally wouldn’t miss. You might forget something that’s very important to the safety and security of the facility and everybody in it. So yes, I do believe it can impact it, negatively,” Kempf said, adding that they have not had any serious or dangerous breaches of security during this period of tight staffing.

She also sees a real need for more mental health resources, as they only get a professional in house for two hours per week to deal with a fluctuating population of detainees, recently at 150 with 100 men.

Kempf believes the jail also needs more special housing for the mentally disturbed.

She now has seven vacancies to fill, explaining to applicants that she enjoys her chosen career.

“And I always felt like if you helped one person that you’ve done something. This is where we can try to change some of what they’re doing out there that’s getting them in trouble,” Kempf said.

Cmdr. Stanton agrees that she also made the right move leaving her ambition to be a street cop behind.

“I do want people to get into the field. I’m not trying to discourage that, but it is holidays and weekends and nights. It is a good job. It’s very rewarding, " Stanton said.

She says she’s only been attacked on the job once, which ended with her tazing the male subject.

Stanton says no one was hurt.

Interestingly, both women said male detainees are, generally, more respectful towards them than the female inmates.

They also both mentioned the importance for staff members to seek mental health counseling, as needed, given the stresses and subject matters connected to the job.

Sheriff Lower say she is constantly trying to hire new people.

Sometimes he loses an applicant to another jurisdiction, sometimes he takes an applicant from another county sheriff.

“And we’re all, in essence, fishing from the same shallow pond. And people aren’t putting in applications like they used to. In the past we would’ve had a list of 50 people. And the last one we had was 17,” Lower said. One issue in the hiring process, Lower said is the recent, negative perception of his profession. “I’ve had some families that told me their son or daughter wanted to be in law enforcement their entire life. But they talked them out of it.’s fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of being persecuted,” Lower said. Another obstacle cited: state hiring mandates that Lower says can drag the process out enough that hiring one corrections officers can take 6-7 months. “My first academy opening is in January and I have 2 openings. I need 7 people right now,” Lower said.

Right now, DOC has 1,828 openings for corrections officers across Illinois.

They were part of a job fair in McLean County last month. 13 job seekers came by, according to a spokeswoman.

A job fair at ISU the next week drew 7 job seekers.

It is a career choice that pays a competitive starting wage, though.

Lower will pay nearly $47,000 for that first year.

Plus, 11 paid holidays, 3 personal days and 10 vacation days after the first 12 months on the job.

DOC corrections officers start at just over $42,000 a year, which jumps to $48,000 after 6 months.

In comparison, shows a starting, first year nurse in Peoria can expect to make $49,000.

While, that same online portal shows a teacher here would start at $34,500.

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