The Department of Labor will release a new set of employment projections in only a couple of weeks from now, but I’m going to jump the gun and predict that the outlook for correctional officers and jailers will continue to be poor. The projection for the 2010–2020 period was for only 5 percent growth, compared to the average of 14 percent across all occupations. But isn’t the prison industry booming? If so, why such a lackluster outlook for the guards?
It’s true that the prison industry is currently doing very well. Nationwide, there are approximately 2.3 million inmates in state, federal, and private prisons. This is roughly double the number behind bars in 1990 and exceeds the number of prisoners in any other country.
However, there is a huge cost to this immense human inventory and to the infrastructure and labor force required to keep these prisoners behind bars. The federal government alone spends about $55 billion each year on its prisons. In the current climate of budget-cutting, even those who like to think of themselves as law-and-order crusaders are forced to question this expenditure.
Also, consider that violent crime is on a steady downward trend. To be sure, a very large fraction of those in prisons have either been convicted of nonviolent offenses, especially drug charges, or are being detained as undocumented aliens. But the state-by-state trend toward decriminalization of cannabis will result in fewer drug convictions. And the federal government has shifted its policy on drug offenders away from the harsh penalties enacted during heyday of the “war on drugs.” Finally, if—yes, it’s a big “if”—Congress can reform our immigration laws, we also should see a decline in those convicted of being here illegally.
Finally, the existence of a large workforce of correctional officers and jailers—an estimated 475,300 in 2010—creates public-health costs that are often overlooked but that are substantial. I am grateful to Caterina G. Spinaris, PhD, of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach for calling this to my attention, in response to a recent article in which I identified certain high-stress occupations. Research she participated in resulted in the estimate that 27% of corrections professionals suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For security staff, the estimates were that 34.1% suffer from PTSD and 31.0% from depression. The Desert Waters research found significant, although lower, rates of PTSD and depression among other prison employees, such as clerical staff, chaplains, and maintenance workers.
These are all reasons to be hopeful that in the years ahead, prisons will not be the job-creators that they sometimes have touted as.