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Located in Canon City, the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, shown here in a Dec. 9, 2020, photo, is the state’s oldest prison. Built in 1871, it preceded the state’s admission to the Union by five years. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Still struggling to reverse historically low staffing numbers, the Colorado Department of Corrections is drastically raising financial incentives — up to $7,000 at some locations — and posting on TikTok to recruit correctional officers. 

The latest program offers $4,500 bonuses for new correctional officers and an additional $2,500 for those willing to work in prisons where the shortages are worst, including correctional facilities in Sterling, Limon, Buena Vista and Cañon City, according to CDOC. 

The incentives are the largest the department has offered in years, a spokeswoman for the department said, and mark a dramatic step up from the $200 signing bonuses offered earlier this year to those who agreed to work at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex. That prison has been hit hard by both staffing shortage and the pandemic. 

Current employees are also being offered incentives in an attempt to boost retention. Correctional officers, correctional support staff, and teachers and case managers assigned to security posts will receive $4,000 through the plan, which was approved by Gov. Jared Polis last month. The bonus will be paid in three installments, starting this month. Other staff who are assigned to a 24/7 facility will receive $1,000. The department is also offering $2,000 referral bonuses.

CDOC officials plan to offer the incentive through next June, but the program could be discontinued at any time if funding becomes scarce, according to a document from the agency’s human resources office outlining the incentive plan. New hires that leave before they’ve worked a year must pay back the hiring incentive.

Despite numerous efforts to recruit new workers in the past two months, the number of vacancies hasn’t changed much since August. As of Tuesday, there were 1,756 openings. The CDOC is considered fully staffed when it has about 8,000 workers.

The new incentives come about a month after the agency dropped its vaccine mandate and are the latest attempt to fill the hundreds of vacancies that have caused programs to shutter and raised security concerns in facilities across the state. In some facilities, the shortages forced case workers and teachers to work shifts as prison guards

“Our goal is to keep as normal of operations as possible, but facilities may need to modify by postponing nonessential programming and activities,” spokeswoman Annie Skinner said Tuesday. Some classes could be moved to the education channel on inmate televisions or online, she said. 

Spokeswoman Brandie Anderson said it’s still “too early to tell” if the vaccine mandate will make an impact in the shortages, but noted that there has been an increase in former employees requesting reinstatement. 

CDOC partnered with the state to run hiring events, including fairs where qualified candidates were given on-the-spot job offers, and has hired 280 people in the past three months, according to the department.

The agency plans to continue to attend job fairs, virtually and in-person, at colleges, workforce centers, military institutions and at community events. It has also increased its social media presence on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram and created a TikTok account in late July. 

In a video posted to the department’s new TikTok account, staff members wave to the camera while the theme song from the 1980s sitcom “Full House” plays. “Join our team and make memories that will last a lifetime!” the post reads. In another video, photos of staff members striking a pose are edited together with Echosmith’s 2013 song “Be Like the Cool Kids.” 

Staff shortages remain an issue at San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo, where employees are still working overtime and unable to take paid vacation days, correctional officer Erik Justesen said. 

During the height of the shortages, he said he was working 300 hours a month. While overtime has decreased as some positions have been filled, the long hours are still taxing, he said. About 20 people have left since he started working at the facility in June 2021 and there are about 22 vacant positions.

“Physically, you’re tired. Mentally, you’re exhausted,” Justesen said. “You’re not spending any quality time with friends or family outside of work. If you’re not resting and recuperating, you’re not getting your mental health needs met.”

The prison has about 225 beds for incarcerated people who have the most severe and persistent behavioral health issues, according to CDOC’s website.

“Staff that deals with any offender in general should be able to have a conversation and not be exhausted or tired about it,” he added.

For Justesen, who has worked for the DOC for 18 years, retention is a glaring issue.

“There’s no reward for working for the DOC,” he said, pointing to the lack of raises and no performance bonuses in the department’s salary schedule. He criticized the agency’s new incentive program for only being offered to select positions.

He said he has considered leaving the job several times, but he stays for his retirement benefits.

“The biggest challenge is that our leadership is not with the staff. They’re against staff,” he said. “And until that changes, we’re not going to see anything change.”

The bonuses help, said Hilary Glasgow, executive director for the state workers’ union, WINS, but are merely a “Band-Aid” on the larger problem. The department should be directing the money toward a long-term pay structure that offers raises for staff, she said.

Workers who have been working at the department for more than 10 years, like Justesen, are making only slightly more than those who “just walked in the door,” she said.  

“Our DOC workers feel that this money should be put somewhere where it’s going to affect long-term pay structure, rather than just blasting money out into the stratosphere to try to get more bodies working in the prisons,” Glasgow said. 

Colorado isn’t alone in its challenges tied to prison staff shortages. Nationwide, prison systems are raising salaries, lowering the minimum age to 18, ramping up recruiting efforts and offering signing bonuses in an attempt to reverse an exodus of corrections officers. In Nebraska, for example, the prison system is offering bonuses up to $15,000 for new correctional corporals.

Olivia Prentzel covers breaking news and a wide range of other important issues impacting Coloradans for The Colorado Sun, where she has been a staff writer since 2021. At The Sun, she has covered wildfires, criminal justice, the environment,...