Despite raises, turnover remains high at Georgia prisons, juvenile centers

Officials from the state Department of Corrections and the state Department of Juvenile Justice told legislators Wednesday that the retention of officers remains a problem even after last year's 10% pay raise. Pay is not the sole problem, they said. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Officials from the state Department of Corrections and the state Department of Juvenile Justice told legislators Wednesday that the retention of officers remains a problem even after last year's 10% pay raise. Pay is not the sole problem, they said. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Nearly a year after Georgia implemented a 10% pay hike for guards at prisons and juvenile detention centers, turnover remains incredibly high.

Commissioners of the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Corrections said Wednesday that they have struggled to retain officers and often cite the low pay as a main reason many leave.

Department of Juvenile Justice officials said the pay increase last year is beginning to curb turnover, but the number of entry-level officers leaving within their first year on the job remained at 90% in fiscal 2021, which ended June 30. That’s a slight improvement from the 97% of new corrections officers that left the agency the previous year. Agencywide, turnover decreased from 45% to 40% from fiscal 2020 to fiscal 2021.

“(First-year turnover is) still high, but we’re trending in the right direction,” Juvenile Justice Commissioner Tyrone Oliver told a joint committee of the Legislature’s budget writers.

Retention problems have been common in recent years throughout state government because the pay is often lower than workers can make in the private sector. Training officers is expensive, so high turnover rates can cost agencies millions of dollars a year.

With last year’s salary increase, an entry-level corrections officer at an adult or juvenile detention center makes about $31,000.

Gov. Brian Kemp has proposed a $5,000 increase for state employees. Oliver said that pay bump could help keep officers, but he said the issue is more than just low pay. It’s often difficult to keep new entry-level officers at juvenile facilities longer than a month, Oliver said.

“We typically lose officers before they get through the academy,” Oliver said in an interview. “Most people leave within 30 days. Some people walk in and realize this is not for them — it’s a difficult population, they can’t bring in their phones, they can feel cut off from the outside world. It’s almost like a culture shock.”

The situation is similar at the Department of Corrections. Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward told lawmakers that annual turnover for corrections officers is about 49%.

“Hiring is not an issue with us; the issue that we have is retention,” Ward said. “We have a challenging work environment, we have aging infrastructure, we have more violent offenders with longer sentences and a lack of telework capabilities for our staff.”