Panic attacks and 20-hour workdays: Why Philly correctional officers are quitting in droves
The jails are 582 workers short of a full complement. Some who quit said they were physically and mentally breaking down, amid the chaotic environment in the Philadelphia Department of Prisons.
When Heather Malloy could not face another 16-hour workday at the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, she started paying a coworker $20 per shift to take her mandatory overtime assignments.
And when her adult son commented on her drinking alone at the end of yet another white-knuckled, understaffed shift, that’s when she finally decided to quit.
In July, after 18 years as a correctional officer, Malloy joined an exodus of 25 workers each month who have been leaving jobs at the city jail complex in Northeast Philadelphia during the pandemic. Some, like her, were midcareer workers who had envisioned staying on through retirement. They quit, they told The Inquirer, amid what they described as a mounting mental-health and public safety crisis.
Several described experiencing panic attacks on the job, and said they had begun taking prescription antianxiety medications. Others described physical illness they believed resulted from the stress of long hours and unsafe staffing levels.
“One day, I was mandated to sit in the [control] bubble and watch two blocks with one officer each, and inmates constantly popping out,” Malloy said, referring to incarcerated people escaping their cells due to broken locks. “I had anxiety so bad, because I was so afraid someone was going to get hurt and I was going to have to witness it. I could call for a response, and there’s nobody there to respond.”
Malloy now works for an area school district. Her husband, who also quit the jails, took a job in the state prison system.
The jails have lost about 500 corrections staff during the pandemic, according to the city’s publicly posted payroll records. In that same time period, only 143 new recruits were added, lawyers for the city said in recent court filings.
In June, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart raised an alarm when the jails were 382 workers short, “a tipping point” she said required urgent attention. Now, according to Rhynhart’s office, the shortfall has grown to 582 staffers, putting the jails 31% below the city-approved deployment plan.
Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney declined interview requests from The Inquirer.
But in a statement, Carney attributed the shortfall to the Great Resignation, which has left prisons nationwide short-staffed. In states including Georgia, Nebraska, and Florida, correctional officer shortages have grown dire and even caused prisons to shut down, The Associated Press and The Marshall Project reported. In contrast, Pennsylvania’s Department of Prisons reports a 6.4% vacancy rate for officer positions.
“COVID-19 has created challenges with both hiring and retention as long-term employees and potential new hires are opting to pursue other professions that offer the option of working from home or in less-challenging environments,” Carney said. She said that 48 cadets are scheduled to graduate in the spring. The department, which houses about 4,400 people across five prison facilities, “continues to aggressively pursue qualified applicants required to ensure that our facilities are as safe as possible.”
Rhynhart, however, said Philadelphia’s problem is “far greater than just a national staffing shortage.”
“There’s a real humanitarian disaster going on,” she said. “There’s a responsibility that the mayor’s administration should be exercising.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney declined an interview request but said the mayor supports Carney’s “tireless efforts” despite “immense logistical and operational challenges presented over the past 22 or so months.”
The correctional officers’ union, Local 159 of AFSCME District Council 33, has for months called for a leadership overhaul at the jails, raising concerns over broken locks and recurring riots. Eighteen people died there in 2021; that includes at least three homicides, two suicides, and four accidental drug-related deaths. Internal documents and video obtained by The Inquirer showed there were no staff present to intervene when homicides and other assaults occurred.
Local 159 president David Robinson said the problems he’s trying to coach correctional officers through are unlike anything he expected to encounter as a union representative. Some officers, trapped at work on mandatory overtime shifts, could not pick up their children as scheduled. “Now, DHS is involved,” he said.
Others faced eviction or repossession of their vehicles because — more than two years after the city rolled out its OnePhilly payroll system — they still are not receiving complete paychecks, he said. (Officers’ starting salaries are around $41,000.) And many worry over health consequences of working under thick chemical clouds of K2, the synthetic marijuana that appears to be widely available in the jails, he said.
Carney, in her statement, said that the payroll issue has been resolved by use of a timecard system. She said the drug issue has been addressed with K-9-assisted searches, and that anyone found with contraband is referred for criminal prosecution.
“I talked two cadets into not quitting last week,” Robinson said, “because they had to stay 20 hours, they didn’t get a lunch relief, and they’re like, ‘This is pure insanity! Who works like this?’ ”
An officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared retaliation from prison administration, said the 20-hour workdays almost broke her. She said she would leave the jail only to get a Wawa coffee and a shower, then sleep in her car a few hours before reporting back to work. She began suffering panic attacks, and was prescribed antianxiety medication, she said.
She said she quit because she could no longer be party to what she termed human rights violations: incarcerated people pleading for toilet paper when she had none to give, or sliding her notes that they were being assaulted in their cells when she had no one to call for backup. She also said that on days when there were not enough staffers to provide prisoners with court-mandated out-of-cell time, she was ordered to fabricate paperwork saying otherwise.
Since leaving, she went off her anxiety medications, she said, but still suffers mental health consequences. “I still hear keys in my dreams. I had a dream last night I was stuck in my cell.”
A former sergeant who asked to be identified only by his last name, Cherian, because he said he does not want former prisoners to be able to locate him, said he believes that the staffing situation created a hostile environment as incarcerated people grew agitated over recurring lockdowns. He said he was often forced to put himself and subordinates in dangerous situations, such as assigning only one officer to a 90-man pod.
The 16-hour work days took a toll, he said. Sometimes, he’d go home sick after eight or 12 hours — but then he risked discipline for leaving early, he said. “I started breaking down,” he said. “It was affecting my sleep, my daily life.”
Several former staffers described an excessively punitive work environment.
Jessica Bowers, who worked her way up to deputy warden over 18 years, said she no longer saw a future in the department given the hollowed-out leadership ranks. The prisons went from four wardens in 2019 to just one this year. The supervising ranks, including sergeants, lieutenants, captains, and deputy wardens, declined by 36% overall.
“The threats are nonstop: ‘You’re going to be disciplined,’ ” she said. “And the pressure of getting these inmates out for their allotted time? They obviously have rights. We understand that. But in order for them to come out safely there has to be adequate staff. If you don’t, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Others, speaking on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation, said they quit because they simply no longer felt safe.
“It got incredibly dangerous at the end,” said an officer who left after nine years.
“I can be replaced at a job. I can’t be replaced at home,” said another, a woman who has young children and survived an assault by a male prisoner.
And a former lieutenant, who now works in corrections in another state, said he was disturbed by both uncontrolled violence in the jails and the pressure from above to discipline officers when incidents occurred, even when the officers could not have prevented them.
He said he’d been out sick for a few weeks earlier this year when he realized he could not go back: “I thought it was a viral infection. But my doctor said my sickness could have been triggered by an extreme amount of stress. About a week or two after I resigned, I didn’t feel that dread anymore. Every day, I would wake up with this pit in my stomach. There were times I would have a full-blown panic attack driving to work.”
Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Prison Society, said her organization has received an unprecedented number of anonymous reports from staffers, “concerned about their own safety, concerned about the safety of incarcerated people, wanting us to know about the depths of the mismanagement.”
She said she’s heard an array of proposed responses, from accelerating the pace of court hearings to hiring temporary staff to identifying alternative facilities. But none have come to fruition.
“This is how human rights tragedies can happen. … The city is less safe because no one is willing to stand up and take full responsibility,” she said.