The Prince George’s County Department of Corrections has lost nearly a third of its workforce since the start of the pandemic, the News4 I-Team found. It's a problem corrections officers say has compromised safety inside the jail and led to forced overtime, exhaustion and routine lockdowns at the facility.
“Safety in the jail has been compromised, and not just for the staff alone. Even among the inmates, they don't feel safe like they used to be,” said Olajide Oshiyoye, one of five current officers to speak with the News4 I-Team for this story.
"It's a runaway machine, and we don't have the wheel anymore,” added John Dewitt, a former officer who also spoke to News4.
The officers stressed they spoke out under the protection of their union rights and their views do not represent jail leadership. Some of the officers have worked at the jail, which largely houses people awaiting trial, for decades and say the change is stark.
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“We've lost so many officers,” Oshiyoye said. “We are losing more than we are getting.”
Corrections facilities across the country are grappling with a shortage of personnel – a problem officers say only worsens as more head for the exit door, leaving those behind to shoulder tougher and longer shifts alone.
But records obtained by News4 show that, while corrections staffing is down in every local jurisdiction the I-Team asked, the pain is felt acutely in Prince George’s County.
There, data show staffing has dropped from 446 at the start of 2020 to just 310 officers this year, with the county now seeking to fill about 175 vacancies.
Comparatively, records show Fairfax County lost nearly 60 officers in the same time frame, dropping from 474 officers in early 2020 to 416 this year. As of April, the county had 84 vacancies.
Montgomery County reported losing just 17 officers over the three-year period, from 285 to 268, with 30 open positions.
D.C. did not respond to the I-Team’s request.
“They're going to other jurisdictions. They're going to a lot of different jurisdictions, too,” said Brad Hudson, who said he’s worked for Prince George’s County for more than 25 years. “What does that say? It says it's not the profession … It's our county, in particular.”
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The officers said the shortage has led to them routinely being required to work 16-hour days, multiple days a week – a problem they said has led to exhaustion and increases the risk of an officer falling asleep on the job.
“We really need some type of relief, some type of help,” said Tammie Owens, a veteran with more than 30 years at the jail.
Jail administrators declined an interview but in a statement said, “Public safety agencies across the nation have seen personnel shortages and this is true as well for the Prince George's Department of Corrections.”
The statement continued, “As an essential agency, PGDOC is never closed and must be staffed around the clock, throughout all three shifts. Because of this, mandatory overtime is sometimes necessary to ensure the jail is appropriately staffed and the safety of inmates and employees is maintained.”
But some of those still on staff say their safety feels tenuous, at best, with officers accustomed to working in pairs often now working alone. As a result, they said the jail often operates on lockdown, like a prison.
A jail spokesman confirmed visitation was canceled at the jail this past weekend due to short staffing. Asked about the frequency of lockdowns, the spokesman directed the I-Team to file an open records request.
Hudson said inmates historically dislike lockdown but now “they might accept maximum security conditions, because it protects them.”
In February, jail leaders assembled a special team to sweep the facility for contraband and recovered more than 66 makeshift weapons, pills and unauthorized medication.
The officers applauded the work of the special unit that recovered the weapons over a two-week period, but said it was “terrifying” to see the reality of what the inmates had stored inside their cells. Some blamed short-staffing for not having caught the weapons earlier.
“We had seen them before, but not this quantity of them at one time,” Hudson said of the contraband.
"It signaled how unsafe they must feel,” Stephon Blalock said about the inmates. “We just don't have the staff to maintain that security."
In the past year, the jail has had a series of troubling incidents. Last June, an inmate was stabbed to death inside the jail. Then in December, four inmates were sent to the hospital after a physical altercation.
Blalock says he feels especially worried for inmates held on nonviolent charges.
“Some are just people that just got caught making bad decisions and they're having to serve a little time,” he said, adding, “Why should they come in and feel like their lives are threatened and not safe simply because we're understaffed?”
In a statement jail officials said, “As the Prince George’s County Department of Corrections (PGDOC) adapts to post-pandemic times and transitions back to what is known as pre-COVID-19 jail operations, a facility-wide shakedown was conducted to identify if any contraband items existed that could compromise the safety of the inmate population, employees and the public.”
A jail spokesman said 47 inmates were departmentally charged and added “PGDOC will continue to conduct routine shakedowns throughout the facility to maintain everyone’s safety.”
Faye S. Taxman, founding director of the Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence at George Mason University, said while jail staffing nationally has always been lean, the field is now suffering from a confluence of factors.
"You have people who are retiring out of the system. You have people who do not want to work in that environment. You have high demands on staff to work multiple shifts. And therefore, people, you know, get frustrated and exhausted,” she said.
Taxman said the solution is multi-pronged and includes reducing jail populations. But she also said governments should increase pay and supports for officers, such as with programs to rotate them in and out of tough assignments.
“We don't invest in our frontline staff very well – police officers, correctional officers, teachers – and there are techniques we can do to really build up those frontline staff,” she said.
Taxman said the conditions of jails should be a concern for everyone, noting roughly 20% of the American population has had some experience with the criminal legal system.
“A lot of people are impacted now,” she said.
In a statement, the county said it’s been “aggressively recruiting” through career fairs, school visits, community events, social media and word of mouth. It now also offers a sign-on bonus of $3,000 for rookies – a figure that will soon increase to $5,000 – and $5,000 for correctional officers with experience.
The current officers pointed out that is less than what is offered to new cops in the county, who are eligible to receive up to $10,000.
Hudson said he used to tell new officers that things would improve.
“I believed things were going to get better because I saw how they were before,” he said, then paused. “I've stopped telling them that. I can't tell them that anymore.”
This story was reported by Tracee Wilkins, produced by Katie Leslie, shot by Steve Jones and Anthony Pittman, and edited by Jeff Piper.