MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Earlier this year, Tennessee lawmakers and Gov. Bill Lee teamed up to give state correctional officers a much-needed pay raise in an effort to help reduce the staffing shortage facing Tennessee prisons.
But that may not be easy to do, even with the pay increase.
Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker told lawmakers in January that 61 percent of prison guards quit within their first year, often to take a better-paying job somewhere else.
Parker said Tennessee's strong economy, ironically, contributed to the problem.
"It makes it difficult on corrections to hire people, not only in corrections but I think in some other public service work also. It makes it difficult to hire people and we're struggling," said Parker.
According to a 2018 TDOC statistical abstract report, 14 percent of correctional officer jobs went unfilled last year, which is eight times the rate from 2005.
Memphis state Rep. Mark White, a Republican, says the general assembly approved $20 million this year to increase the pay of correctional officers.
"So hopefully that will help," said White. "They're all very professional and they work hard, but you've got to have that pay."
As of July 1, the new starting salary for a correctional officer is $32,500, which lifts Tennessee from one of the lowest-paying states in the region to the highest.
But it's still far lower than what the average correctional officer makes nationwide.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average correctional officer is paid $21.35 per hour and $44,400 per year.
Tennessee's new starting salary is also lower than what the Bureau of Federal Prisons pays its starting correctional officers, according to the TDOC statistical abstract report.
The report also shows it's even lower than what local agencies TDOC competes with pay their correctional officers, including Shelby and Davidson counties.
State Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, says the staffing shortage remains a “slow-burning crisis” because of years of inaction.
"We need to provide sufficient money that correctional officers can be paid in a way that makes people want to devote their entire life to a career as a correctional officer," said Stewart.