Utah prisons are dangerously short-staffed, must make ‘drastic’ changes, audit finds

The staff shortages persist amid a growing inmate population, auditors found.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Female inmates and corrections officers walk outside at the Utah State Correctional Facility, April 7, 2023. The prison, which opened in summer 2022, has a dangerous lack of staff, leading to attacks on corrections officers and fights between inmates, an audit found.

State auditors this week drilled into to yet another issue plaguing the new Utah State Corrections Facility: a dangerous lack of staff.

This shortage has led to “several attacks” on corrections employees, said Kade Minchey, Auditor General with the Legislative Auditor General’s office, during a Legislative Audit Subcommittee meeting Tuesday. Fights between inmates are also a problem.

Since the new state prison opened in July 2022, it’s faced other risky problems. Prescription medications weren’t getting to inmates. Mosquitoes preyed on the facility’s captive population.

Even the staffing concerns presented in this audit aren’t necessarily new. The Salt Lake Tribune reported on the issue in December 2022, and corrections officials have known for a decade that their staffing and retention plans weren’t adequately addressing need.

But the latest staffing and culture issues are worse than before, auditors found.

Turnover rates at the former Draper prison were about 21%. At the new prison site, the turnover rate for fiscal 2022 was 40%. Many workers end up quitting their jobs within the first three years, according to the audit, and the prison now employs 143 fewer corrections officers than it did in the year before the move.

Department of Corrections executive director Brian Redd, who was appointed to the position in May, told lawmakers Tuesday that the department would implement a new strategic plan and improve employee recruitment, retention and training.

“There are challenges, and it’s going to take some time to make improvements and to get things where they need to be,” Redd said, “but we’re committed as a team.”

Here’s how auditors said the department fell short, and how they propose officials fix issues:

Staffing numbers hazardously low

One touted improvement at the new prison was the ability to implement a concept called “direct supervision,” which places corrections officers into housing units with inmates, instead of keeping watch from within a secure room, said Brian Dean, Deputy Auditor General, at the Tuesday meeting.

“The idea is that it increases their interactions, it builds relationships with them,” he said.

The model is meant to increase chances of rehabilitation. But for it to work, the prison needs more staff.

The Utah State Corrections Facility currently employees 323 corrections officers, according to the audit. To be fully staffed, they would need nearly 900 — hundreds more, and nearly 200 more than the department has the funding to hire.

Even with a “modified staffing pattern,” where a single corrections officer monitors two sections of inmates — about 128 people — the prison would need 562 staffers.

And then, Dean said, there’s another issue “aggravating” the current officer shortage: The prison population keeps growing.

In July 2022, the prison held just over 2,450 inmates. By the next year, it held more than 2,700.

Prison leadership has proposed constructing another general population building to house these inmates — requiring about 50 more corrections officers, the audit stated.

Auditors mused about whether the department should stick with the “direct supervision” model and proposed working with lawmakers to consider if “different inmate management techniques should be allowed in statute.”

Redd said the department was “committed to direct supervision when it can be done safely.”

Poor planning

“One of the things that was especially concerning to us is that the Department of Corrections, in an internal audit, they knew about this problem going back almost 10 years ago,” Dean said.

That internal audit identified issues with staff recruitment and retention. Instead of implementing the recommendations outlined in that audit, Dean said, corrections staff continued on with “business as usual” and did not make any “significant changes.”

Then, they moved into a facility that needed “more than twice” the corrections officers as the old prison in Draper.

The design of the prison’s housing units also needs more officers — because crews built rectangular housing blocks, which limit what an officer can see.

The audit noted that the department’s strategic plan also lacked a vision statement, goals and performance measures, and that “safety and security” are not included as core values in the plan.

‘Drastic’ changes needed

Corrections officials must make “drastic changes” to address staffing and safety issues, auditors found.

One solution, Dean said, could be to hire consultants to analyze staffing numbers, pay and benefits and create a better workplace culture, Dean said.

The majority of prison employees disagreed that their organization had a “positive culture” and high employee morale, and most agreed that culture hasn’t improved in the last year, according to auditors’ surveys. Employees told auditors they don’t feel supported by — or trust — leadership.

That perception needs to improve, auditors said.

“You can have great training. You can have great policies,“ Minchey said. “If you don’t have good culture, you have a problem.”