Correctional officers cite low pay as top reason for leaving




    Tactical Support Unit officers at ASPC-Florence salute the flag during a 9/11 ceremony on Sept. 11, 2018. Photo via Facebook

    For the first time in two years, the Arizona Department of Corrections hired more correctional officers than it lost – but those who left cited low pay as a primary reason they took other jobs. 

    In a report to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, the department included information from the exit surveys conducted with 306 employees who left the agency since the start of 2019. Nearly two-in-five, 39%, said they left because their salaries weren’t competitive, making it the biggest driver of attrition among prison guards. 

    Salary was closely followed by safety concerns, which 37% of correctional officers said influenced their decision to leave the department. Another 34% percent said they were leaving due to personal reasons, such as family, health and school issues, while 32% cited a negative work environment, 30% said they wanted a career change and 26% said they didn’t feel valued.

    The figures add up to more than 100% because departing employees could provide more than one reason for taking other employment.

    The legislative committee in September asked the department to begin compiling the information from exit surveys. 

    Roughly 21% of the 306 correctional officers who left their jobs in 2019 were in their first year of employment with the Department of Corrections, and 54% were under age 30. Only 7% retired, while the remainder left for other jobs. 

    It was unclear how many of the correctional officers left before a 10% pay raise for the current fiscal year, which began July 1, went into effect.

    According to DOC’s report, its average starting salary is still less than a number of competitors, despite an increase of $3,291. The department’s average starting salary is $36,208, compared to $48,630 at the Florence Correctional Center, which is run by private prison company CoreCivic. Several other privately run facilities, as well as federal facilities and the Maricopa and Pima County sheriff’s offices, also offer higher starting salaries, ranging from $36,608 to $44,158.

    The issues cited in the exit surveys contribute to a department-wide vacancy rate of nearly 20%. The vacancy rate varies among various correctional facilities. Eyman topped the list with a 38.5% vacancy rate, while several prisons had lower-than-average rates.

    However, the report also included some good news for the department. In a letter to Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, who chairs the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, new Department of Corrections Director David Shinn wrote that the agency had a net increase of 68.25 filled correctional officer positions, the first such increase since before fiscal year 2018. 

    That is a marked improvement from the first quarter of fiscal year 2020, when the department saw a net loss of 108 correctional officers. The department has had a net loss of 40 correctional officers so far in the fiscal year. 

    The Department of Corrections set a goal at the start of the fiscal year of filling 812 vacant correctional officer positions by June of 2020, which averages out to a net increase of 203 per quarter. The departments’ goal is to lower its vacancy rate to 6.8% by the end of the fiscal year. That would mean DOC hopes to have only 453 vacant correctional officer positions in June 2020; it had 1,323 vacancies as of Oct. 28. 

    The Joint Legislative Budget Committee will review the department’s information at its quarterly meeting on Wednesday.

    Jeremy Duda
    Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”