Colorado’s prisons are understaffed. People living inside fear for their safety because of it

Colorado’s prisons are understaffed. This isn’t news – public sector labor shortages are happening across the country, and prisons are not exempt. But according to a report by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition – also known as CCJRC – basic needs of individuals living in the state’s prisons are going unmet as a direct result of these staffing shortages.

There’s been much written about the problems in prison understaffing from the perspective of those who work there, but CCJRC’s report is the first in Colorado – and potentially the first across the country – to examine the impacts of the labor shortage as experienced by the people who are incarcerated.

CCJRC sent a survey into all of Colorado’s state prisons – there are 20 across the state – and heard back from over 400 individuals who had a lot to say.

Jason Vitello, the Equity and Community Development Manager for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, joined Jackie Sedley to discuss the report and the current status of the incarceration system in Colorado.


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    APublicAffair_2024-01-24 Jackie Sedley


Jackie Sedley: Nine o’clock on listener supported KGNU. That’s KGNU 88. 5 Boulder, KGNU 1390 Denver, and you’re listening to a public affair. I’m Jackie Sedley. Colorado’s prisons are understaffed, and this isn’t news. Public sector labor shortages are happening across the country, and prisons are not exempt. But according to a report by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, also known as the CCJRC, Basic needs of individuals living in the state’s prisons are going unmet as a direct result of these staffing shortages.

There’s been much written about the problems in prison understaffing from the perspective of those who work there, but CCJRC’s report is the first in Colorado, and potentially the first across the country, to examine the impacts of the labor shortage as experienced by the people who are incarcerated.

Here to talk about the report is Jason Vitello, the Equity and Community Development Manager for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. Christy Donner, their Executive Director, was going to join us as well this morning, but she’s putting out some fires related to legislation that the coalition is currently working on getting passed.

Jason, thanks so much for joining us.

Jason Vitello: Thank you so much for having me. Happy to be here.

Sedley: So tell me a bit about the CCJRC first, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. How long have you been around as a non profit? What’s the mission and what kind of legislative work are you doing right now that’s keeping Christie occupied this morning?

Vitello: Yeah, definitely. CCGRC is a non-profit. We began in 1999, funded by Christy Donner our executive director. And the mission of CCGRC is to eliminate the overuse of the criminal justice system and advance community health and safety. The idea being that we have an over reliance on cops, courts, and cages when it comes to matters of public health and safety and that community ought to have a larger role in promoting safety and health in our neighborhoods and communities as well.

And yeah, our legislative agenda spans quite a few areas. One in particular is the Prison Population Management Bill that is linked to this research quite a bit. But we also have a lot of investment in community reinvestment, which is you know, securing public funding for some of those community based.

Okay, so now getting into this study, how many people participated and what were some of the most substantial findings about the impacts of understaffing in Colorado’s prisons? Thanks a lot. And thank you for providing some of the context behind the study. You did that pretty well. There’s been growing awareness about the staff shortage in corrections.

And to your point, you know, we’re seeing staff shortages across all sectors. Uh, you know, and this is not specific to Colorado. This is not specific to corrections, but corrections is having a a particularly difficult time. Acquiring staff. You know, we’re seeing this across the nation. States like Florida have deployed the National Guard, for instance, to kind of provide backup to the existing staff that they have.

But to your point, we have not seen a whole lot or heard a whole lot about how this staff shortage has impacted inmates themselves. And we wanted to better understand that as we sought to better educate ourselves, the legislature, and the public around this crisis. So we sent out a survey into all of the Colorado state prisons, not the federal prisons. So that’s 20 prisons across the state. We heard back from over 400 individuals who had a lot to say. And unfortunately we are seeing an overwhelming majority report a significant staff shortage and this shortage is impacting everything in their lives. It is impacting their ability to critical yet basic services like mental health care, medical care, dental care, as well as educational program, rec time, right? And other components of incarceration that are meant to help rehabilitate, help people, and, and, you know, get them ready to re enter society. DOC is, despite their best efforts definitely lagging in providing those services and programs So what kind of things in particular did respondents say about the impacts of lack of staff? Yeah. You know, a lot of what we got were survey responses that were closed ended. We wanted a better understanding of their experience related to their ability to get into programming or access services like the ones that I mentioned, but also the quality of those services, the interactions that they’re able to have with their case managers. Staff reassignment, to what extent are they seeing programmatic staff being reassigned to security duties? The utilization of segregation, formerly known as solitary confinement, facility and unit lockdown utilization, and their ability to maintain connection and communication with their loved ones.

And the staffing shortage has impacted all of these areas. Again, a great deal of difficulty having consistent or quality access to ,services significant staff reassignment, some report that you know, staff like, Teachers and case managers are spending more than half their time reassigned to security duties.

Which is troublesome, but not surprising by DOC’s own account, their highest vacancy rates are programmatic staff like teachers and social workers. I think teachers have a vacancy rate of 51 percent and social workers, 61%. Case managers, it’s not a surprise, are critical to the success of an inmate their time inside, helping to ensure that the time is productive and that they’re working toward, at least if they’re eligible. Some folks have said they hadn’t seen their case manager for over a year, you know, it’s, it’s very difficult to maintain consistent communication with the case managers to help prepare them.

A lot of folks talking about a sense of danger, an increased sense of danger, declining mental health, more violence, more physical altercations, more suicide, more substance use. People battling addiction with very, very little access to programming to actually help them through these issues. Facility or unit lockdowns, or segregation, many believe are being used inappropriately, you know, these are supposed to be used to address immediate safety concerns. Segregation is supposed to be for people who pose a safety risk to themselves or others. Most are saying that these are both being utilized to, to help manage the population by an outnumbered and outmanned workforce.

Right? So people who are dealing with a mental health issue instead of being sent to receive mental health treatment are just being thrown into segregation which, you know, there’s robust data out there that shows just how devastatingly harmful that can be, especially on someone who’s already dealing with a mental health crisis.

And then family connection, connection to loved ones. You know, it’s critically important, as a factor for successful re entry that people are able to maintain connections to friends and family and loved ones on the outside. And our result has shown that sadly for many inmates, this is been impacted by the staff crisis as well.

That’s a lot of data to work with. And a lot of that is probably very devastating to hear drastically detrimental experiences as a result of these staffing shortages.

Sedley: I wanted to touch particularly on what you said about staff reassignments. Is, is that the response that the Colorado Department of Corrections often has when they’re short-staffed? Because it’s not like they can just shut down the prisons, obviously.

Vitello: Yeah. And I want to be very clear here that you know, none of this, is meant to disparage or diminish the very hard work of DOC.

They’re doing the best that they can with what they’re given. The staff crisis isn’t their fault. Again, this is largely the result of cultural and economic shifts. I can say a little bit about you know, the staff crisis and its impacts on DOC staff. We partnered they didn’t really partner with us on the report, but they did contribute a statement.

One Voice United, Andy Potter is the executive director of this organization. And this is an initiative that is meant to uplift the voices of actual corrections staff in advocacy conversations. And they have a report that I would also highly suggest folks check out, it’s called I Am Not Okay, that really describes in detail the difficulties experienced by individuals working in corrections.

It is one of the most dangerous jobs. Very, very high rates of depression and suicide. When we think about suicide, for instance, we spend a lot of time, rightfully so, thinking about the veteran population. I’m a veteran too, and I understand that well. Or, you know, law enforcement, police officers. Corrections officers have a suicide rate double that of police officers.

Very, very difficult job, very thankless job. And that makes it hard to fill positions, but it also makes it harder to keep people, which causes people to leave, which makes it harder for the staff that are already in place, right? So DOC has had to implement some measures that again, crisis management, that are adversely impacting staff themselves, right?

So forcing folks to work mandatory overtime or double shifts. Last year, two people were in car accidents coming home from work, after being forced to work overtime shifts, two of those individuals died here in Colorado. Lowering the age to 18 you know, reducing training requirements. A lot of inmates and corrections officers themselves will tell you that they don’t have adequate training, especially when it comes to mental health awareness.

Their own mental health, the mental health of others in their care. So lowering standards, lowering the age requirements have been some of the measures that DOC has taken. You know, not to mention, they’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of money, 192 million on recruitment and retention. And, they were able to attain a net increase of 435. So from October 2022 to October 2023, 435 staff vacancies were filled, and that’s significant, right? But what we’re not talking enough about is during that same time, we also saw a net increase of inmates of 447. So, obviously those gains are not significant in the context of the increase in the inmate population. And when we think about corrections think about it as a stool. Christie Donner likes to say a four legged stool. You remove one of the legs, that stool’s not stable, right? But there needs to be a ratio between the inmate population, the staff, and the beds.

But also there needs to be programming and services available. And right now, we’re not seeing the programming and the services. We’re seeing requests for more beds. We’re seeing a staffing need. But yeah, those ratios are out of balance.

Sedley: Would you be able to provide some numbers to illuminate just how understaffed these facilities are, for instance, how many staff members there are in comparison to what might be considered adequate staffing, how many people are currently incarcerated, and, as you mentioned earlier, how many prisons there are in the state of Colorado?

Vitello: Yeah, I believe there are four federal prisons. There are 20 state prisons. Two of those are private. The total staff number is, is kind of a moving number. We’re not exactly clear on those at this time. But we have just under 16, 000 people in brick and mortar prisons in the state.

And I think the important thing to remember is we have far more prisoners than we have staff to adequately supervise them. And and again, you know, for 435 increase, we spent 192 million to help secure that staff. And at the same time, we increased the inmate population by 447, which is problematic and shows that this is not an issue that we can spend our way out of.

Sedley: If you’re just tuning in right now, I’m speaking with Jason Vitello, the Equity and Community Development Manager for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition on A Public Affair, on KGNU. I wanted to read something, Jason, from the report. It was a quote that someone said in the survey. “I have been incarcerated for 25 years and have never seen prison this bad. We are basically being warehoused. There are very few programs or educational classes. No one wants to work here.” So with that, I wanted to ask, have there been staff shortages like this in the past in Colorado’s prisons or is this pretty drastically different?

Vitello: This is definitely the worst, right? The worst in our history. And it feels like a difference of kind, not degree. There’s been a lot of speculation around why DOC in particular is being hit so hard. I’ve read you know, the, the largest workforces Millennials and younger, DOC is an old school paramilitary command structure, right, in the days of work life balance and telework options.

We’re seeing staff shortages across a lot of industries, right? Um, I’ve heard it said that no one wants to be in a prison, even if they have the keys, right? When we’re little kids, you know, we might play cops and robbers. We might play act you know, being a fireman, but no one pretended to be a CO by locking their friends in their basement, right? It’s, it’s a thankless profession. This is highlighted in that I am not okay report as well. Uh, you don’t see positive depictions of corrections staff in our popular media like we do with police, for instance.

We might hear about a prison riot or when things go wrong, but we don’t hear about the lives that are saved or the prison riots that don’t happen because of staff and so on. So yeah, I would say it’s a difference of kind, not degree. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to get any better.

The projections are not great on a national scale. The state demographer told DOC, the DOC reported this at the joint budget committee hearing, that staffing levels are not returning to where they were before. And that’s the reality that we need to live with. So, yeah, those obviously are some of the harsh realities for, for staff, but again, inmates are really bearing the brunt of this. So this individual spent, has spent 25 years inside. This is the worst that he’s seen. That’s consistent with a lot of the other stuff that we’ve been hearing. Not the only person to say that we’re, we’re just being warehoused. The mission of DOC, the express mission of DOC, is to provide transformative opportunities, for the people under their supervision. And that’s the idea behind incarceration, is rehabilitation, right? People make a mistake and they’re rehabilitated. They’re provided with educational opportunities of programming to help prepare them to contribute to society upon their release.

And DOC is having a hard enough time warehousing people and meeting their basic needs, let alone providing them with those transformative opportunities.

Sedley: So, as you mentioned, the coalition that you’re a part of is not blaming the Department of Corrections, obviously not blaming those that are incarcerated. So, how do you begin to approach solutions to this issue to return, as you said, incarceration into a form of rehabilitation and educational support? Were there any recommendations offered in your report?

Vitello: Absolutely. So there’s currently the prison population management measures law which triggers mechanisms that help facilitate release when the ratio reaches a certain, a certain level. And stay tuned. We’ll be introducing this legislation here in this session, but we’re going to ask the General Assembly to expand the current Prison Population Management Measures law. We’ve seen a steady decline in the prison population, and this should be something that we we discuss in more detail in terms of managing the population. Nevertheless, despite the decline of the growth rate we’re still seeing the staff vacancy gap increase.

We’ve also recommended a DOC oversight commission to assist the DOC, but also to audit report on, and address the frankly unacceptable lack of access to, medical and behavioral health care. And those rehabilitative programs and opportunities for people who are incarcerated. We’re recommending that DOC expand the training opportunities for people inside so that they can be utilized to help increase the programmatic workforce inside. There’s peer to peer recovery, there’s mental health coaches, tutors, teachers, re-entry planners, and vocational trainers. These are all roles that we believe people inside could, could fulfill, right? There’s a lot of people sitting inside that want to be productive, right?

That want to give back, that want to contribute, that want to better themselves, but also help better other people. You know, we don’t believe that anyone is as bad as the worst thing that they’ve ever done. We believe in, in second chances, and this is a perfect opportunity for, for folks to get the help they need. For people inside to be, a part of that help, to be contributors and part of a solution. And it’s good for DOC. And here’s the thing, right? Like the staff shortage is not good for anybody. It’s not good for the leadership at DOC, right? Who have to face down a lot of public pressure. Obviously not good for the inmates.

It’s not good for the families of the staff or the families of the people inside. And given all the people and all the sectors and parties, different parties that are impacted, this absolutely needs to be a cross-sector, collaborative undertaking in terms of finding solutions, right? I mentioned earlier, One Voice United and the statement that they released in our report. Collaboration, you wouldn’t really think that a criminal justice reform organization would work in alignment with an organization meant to promote the needs and interests of corrections workforce.

But that’s kind of the spirit of what we’re talking about here. It’s got to be all-hands on deck. A couple other solutions. There are community-based organizations that are poised and ready to help with the delivery of rehabilitative behavioral health or substance use, or re entry programming inside of DOC. There are many, many Colorado based non-profit organizations that would love to be a part of the solution and that should be facilitated as well.

So, an expansion of the partners that DOC works with and getting those services provided inside. And then we’re also requesting that the General Assembly request an economic study on the public sector workforce and the projected workforce size that is realistic for the DOC in the coming years. There’s quite a bit we know, quite a bit more that we don’t, right? A lot of speculation. What can we expect in terms of future projections around staffing. And then including the impending impact of the fact approximately 25 percent of the current DOC staff is going to be eligible for retirement within five years. So, it could get much, much worse, right? Let alone not better, it could get quite worse. So, an economic study on the public sector workforce and the projected workforce size, that’s actually realistic. You know, like I said, the State Demographer has told DOC that we’re not getting back to previous levels. So we can’t keep thinking in the past. We need to think about, you know, what’s, what’s actually likely for the future state and then the General Assembly should request that DOC conduct and report on an internal staffing analysis. So policymakers have a better understanding of the staff that are needed and in what positions and roles. and roles. General vacancy rate, but we’re seeing higher rates with programmatic staff, social workers, teachers in particular, so getting a more comprehensive sense of those specific vacancies and the needs.

Sedley: With just a couple of minutes left, Jason, I wanted to ask – I know that groups like the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition aren’t necessarily doing the same kind of work that abolition movements are taking on, but a similar critique that I hear of both reform efforts and abolition efforts is the longevity of those processes, of the fact that these are obviously long-term projects and goals and solutions. These won’t happen overnight. Is there anything that the CCJRC is currently working on that’s a bit more immediate to alleviate the stressors on both the DOC and the incarcerated population?

Vitello: Yeah, one of the things that we spent a lot of time on is, is community reinvestment. And it’s, it’s funny, you know, you can talk to abolitionists and you can talk to people in law enforcement and they have a lot of the same beliefs and ideas. And that’s the thing with, with us like we want our solutions to make sense to everybody and normally they do. There’s not a lot of people we talked to who come away, scratching their heads, right. We believe that we over-rely on cops, courts and cages when it comes to promoting public safety and health. We’re, we’re expecting too much that isn’t fair for the jailers or the police.

And when we think of public safety, it’s unfortunate, but we immediately in our society do think of the criminal justice system and law enforcement. But we like to talk about public health and safety, right? Because we believe that they go hand in hand. Mental illness, substance use and addiction, homelessness, even violence and victimization, are often symptoms of disenfranchisement and marginalization that could be better corrected through the provision of opportunity. We talk a lot in our country about choices, personal choices, and that’s true when it comes to health outcomes, but also criminal justice involvement. I think people’s choices are often limited by the chances that they have. So we want to make sure that people have fair chances, right? So we invest a lot of time in community, community reinvestment.

Again, I mentioned it earlier in the opening. That’s making sure that community-based programming that promotes public health and safety are publicly funded. We like to say we, we can’t philanthropize our way out of this, right? And we’re not going to achieve what we need to achieve by, by bake sales while DOC is getting billion dollars in their budgets every year.

So we want to be part of the solutions. Community knows what community needs and we have what we fund, also as Christy likes to say. So, again, I want to thank you for your time and your interest. Please. Visit us, You’ll find this report and others, as well as ways that you can get involved.

Sedley: Thank you so much, Jason Vitello, the Equity and Community Development Manager for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. I appreciate you taking the time this morning.

Vitello: Thanks for having me.

Picture of Jackie Sedley

Jackie Sedley


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