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Colorado prisons are so short-staffed, teachers and case workers are working as guards

The head of the state Department of Corrections said he is working with the governor to develop retention and hiring programs.

DENVER — The head of Colorado's prison system said he expects to announce "soon" how the state will work to combat a severe staffing shortage that has forced prison teachers and case workers to work shifts as correctional officers.

Dean Williams said the Department of Corrections needs 1,700 more workers — approximately 25% of positions are currently vacant. 

"We are pulling no stops in terms of figuring out what the next steps are," he said, adding that he is meeting with Gov. Jared Polis to discuss possibilities this week.

The situation behind bars is so dire, teachers and case workers in at least two Colorado prisons have begun to work as correctional officers. In other locations, prison guards said they are routinely asked to work 16-hour double shifts. 

"It's definitely a safety risk," said corrections officer Nichole Richardson, who worked at San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo.

She quit the job to move to Nebraska, where the state is offering thousands of dollars in sign-on bonuses.

Other prison staff are filling the gap -- like now-former Buena Vista Correctional Facility teacher Paul Brackman, who said he spends half of his week working as a correctional officer. 

"It's not what I signed up for and I'm not very good at it," he said. "I'm just not in the mindset of a corrections officer. And I'm honestly not trying to get there, because I really don't want to be a corrections officer." 

"They weren’t hired for that. That’s not why they came to work for us," Williams said. "I’ve asked for their grace in the middle of this staffing scenario."

Caseworkers at Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City have also had to work as guards to make up for short-staffing. 

"I wear jeans and just a regular, casual shirt because I don't have a uniform," case manager Dana Mueller said. "My training has been pretty much on the job."

Mueller said she typically assists in a cell house acting as security and keeping an eye on inmates and staff, all while case management paperwork piles up in her office.

"Where we would normally meet with [inmates] on a routine basis, we're not able to do that," she said. "I feel frustrated because I can't do my job." 

Because teachers and social workers are serving as guards, prisons have cut their normal job programs. 

"Idle hands in a prison system are never good, and it makes it more hazardous for my staff," Williams said. 

Prison staff said they are concerned about safety on the inside, but also the effect when inmates get out. 

"We're not giving them the services they need to be successful right now because of the staffing crisis. So that's not helping them become productive citizens," Mueller said. 

In the final six months of last year, Brackman said he helped 13 inmates earn their GEDs. In the past six months, only two received diplomas as the amount of time he could spend teaching halved as he worked guard shifts. 

"We're putting guys out on the streets without having access to the programs that can facilitate their rehabilitation," Brackman said. 

Williams said Colorado has reduced the minimum age to work as a guard from 21 to 18 and he's working with the governor's office to evaluate retention and recruitment bonuses. 

"The issue we're up against, to be quite frank, is that other states have gotten very aggressive on signing bonuses and recruitment bonuses and retention bonuses," he said. 

But the union representing prison workers said, in the meantime, the situation is only getting worse, as teachers like Brackman and guards like Richardson quit the department. 

"Everybody is basically working in full burnout mode right now," Brackman said.

RELATED: There's a significant staffing shortage at Denver's jails that staff members say is leading to unsafe conditions

RELATED: Aurora PD changes hiring requirement to help with staffing shortage

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