Staffing shortages are putting a strain on Vermont’s Department of Corrections and some fear the safety of both staff and inmates is reaching a breaking point.

About one third of jobs within the Vermont Department of Corrections remain vacant, which means around a hundred positions are unoccupied. It is a crisis that some say isn’t getting the crisis management that it deserves.

Steve Howard who leads the Vermont State Employees Association says, “While they’re ringing their hands, people are bolting. It’s really a power keg that’s going to explode.”

Howard says corrections officers are being mandated to work 16 hour shifts for days at a time in order to help fill the gap and that the burnout is creating dangerous work conditions and forcing more people throw in the towel. “The employees have so much overtime that correction officers are sleeping in their cars because they don’t have time to go home. They are falling asleep driving to and from work.”

Howard also says the department saw a 44 percent turnover rate in 2021 partially due to the disconnect between management and people on the front lines. He says corrections officers have had to collapse posts and move inmates around and claims administration is typically the last to know.

An inmate at the St. Johnsbury facility shared he has noticed the lack of staffing, which impacts their ability to move about.

Despite these concerns, Department of Corrections Commissioner Nick Deml ensures full security at all facilities. “We haven’t had to change any of our security protocols. No facility has ever gone into a lockdown as a result of staffing shortages at this time. If we went into lockdown, it was because of COVID-19 quarantine order or another security issue.”

Deml says he recognizes the strain on current employees and the need to attract more workers. He says the department will offer recruitment bonuses, a benefits package and wellness efforts.

“At the end of the day, it’s the employees who suffer most. If we can’t close that gap, we need to find ways to keep being innovative to make sure they have the resources they need to be successful.”