As a way to understand the daily operations and needs of Denmar Correctional Center, Delegates Denise Campbell and Bill Hartman recently took a tour of the facility.
“We want to be sure to do what we can to help, because my main concern is the safety of the staff who work in the corrections facilities and to ensure we’re keeping our communities safe,” Campbell said. “We actually went on a full facility tour, which was amazing. I was really impressed with how it was almost like its own little community there.”
The main concern both delegates have is the turn-around rate of correctional officers. At this time, Denmar has 12 officer positions open and too often, officers stay for less than a year before they move on to a higher paying job.
“We talked a little bit about the length of time between someone putting in an application and getting their first paycheck,” Campbell said. “It does take thirty days or more and sometimes, we’re hearing up to forty-five days before you actually go through that whole process. Usually you have to work a full month before you get your first paycheck. Now, how many people who need a job can wait that long?”
The beginning salary for a correctional officer is $22,500, which hasn’t changed in several years.
“Whenever someone’s pay stays stagnant for that period of time, it’s really a hardship on your family,” Campbell said. “Then there’s also the concern that people will start out at a prison and then will get enough training that they can actually go and work at a federal facility and make more money. You can’t blame anybody for that, so I think we, as the legislature and the governor’s office, we need to look at – are we paying a fair wage and are we paying enough to attract and retain them because we know it is a whole lot cheaper to retain somebody than it is to train and find somebody new.
“It’s a process we definitely need to work on and that’s something I know Delegate Hartman and I are going to work on,” Campbell continued. “We recognize there is an issue in the prison system to be able to attract and retain correctional officers. Those jobs are the important ones.”
As they prepare for the next legislative session, Campbell said she and Hartman are looking at ways to increase the correctional officer pay.
“The front line staff – which is the correctional officers – we need to be sure we are paying them a fair wage,” Campbell said. “That would be the first thing I would address because if we don’t have the correctional officers, then the ones that are there are working long hours. It’s very tiring on them. It affects their ability to be alert. I think it leads to safety issues, so I think the first thing we have to do is be sure that we have the officers that we need, but in order to do that, we have got to pay them.”
The visit to the facility helped Campbell realize the importance of correctional officers and to give support to the facility in general.
“The visit that Delegate Hartman and I had was so beneficial and so informative and so impressive,” she said. “I understand that they have issues we’re seeing across the state even though it might not be as large as another facility, but their percentage of employees and officers – there’s an issue there.”
Warden Mark Williamson says Campbell is right on the money when it comes to what Denmar needs the most.
“Being able to keep people and retain people is our biggest concern,” he said. “It’s still a good job at $22,000 a year, $22,500, but when you’ve got to drive an hour to work, and then you’re trying to raise a family, it cuts into the milk and bread you’ve got to put on the table.”
Williamson began working at Denmar in 1998 and has seen a lot of turnaround in his time.
“In August 2014, there were thirty-four people that were hired and twenty-six of those are no longer with us,” he said. “A couple of those were people who retired, but the majority of them found other jobs. They went to work in Virginia working construction. They went to the federal system making another $10- to $20,000 right off the bat for doing the same thing.”
Denmar Correctional Center is a medium security prison, housing 232 male inmates. All residents of the facility are within four years of release, whether it be the end of their sentence or for parole.