April 30, 2002
Slow Economy Leads Some College Graduates to Become Prison Guard Applicants
by Tina Moore, Associated Press Writer
PHILADELPHIA (AP) - When Tatum Lodish graduated last year with a degree in criminal justice, she wanted to help keep troubled teen-agers out of prison. Now, that's where she finds herself.
For the past eight months, the 23-year-old has been a correctional officer at the Berks County Prison, about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
"I basically saw how much the salary is here and put in an application," said Tatum, who started at $27,000 and will go up to $36,000 after a year. "You have the union here to back you up, and the benefits are good."
As the economy struggles and layoffs are more plentiful than jobs, the number of guard applicants at jails and prisons has increased, corrections officials said. More surprising, however, is the number of college graduates turning to the corrections industry for work, said Walter Smith, president of the American Jail Association.
"During the good economic times, it was harder to recruit good officers because they could get better paying jobs somewhere else. With the downturn, we did see an increase in the quality as well as the number of applicants," said Smith, who is a division chief of the Denver Sheriff's Department.
Smith said he has been looking for correctional officers with some college, but it's not mandatory.
"It's mandatory that they have life experience, work experience and maturity," he said. "Whether they get it by going to college and exposing themselves to other cultures and ways of thinking in college or in the military, it's the fact that they've had some training beyond what they get in their nuclear family."
Job security was high on the list Wednesday among men and women interested in becoming corrections officers at Philadelphia's Curran-Fromhold Correction Facility in northeast Philadelphia. The annual salary is about $28,000.
Ray Pielacha, 52, was at an open house at the jail looking for good pay and benefits after losing his job at a food industry warehouse.
Job hopeful Michael Boyes was in a similar situation. He had a job as a massage therapist, a new 7-month-old daughter and insufficient health care.
"September 11th came and nobody came to the spa anymore," the 25-year-old said.
The Berks County Prison has been able to fill its full complement of officers for the first time in years, primarily because of layoffs at a few area companies.
This year, the Berks County facility processed about 600 applications, twice as many as last year, deputy warden Janine Quigley said. She plans to start a waiting list so that future openings can be filled fast. That's in contrast to a year and a half ago, when the prison was about 20 officers short.
At the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, 90 qualified applicants who have already passed background and resume checks are vying for 29 positions.
"The post-9/11 economy has helped us, needless to say," spokesman Alan Lefebvre said.
The facility, which is located in a quickly growing rural area of northern Montgomery County, has 786 correctional officers. The area has a large job pool, which typically found work in the private sector, said Warden George Wagner.
"What we're finding now is that the private sector is not hiring," he said.
The prison, meanwhile, has continued to recruit aggressively through job fairs and Internet postings. Graterford and other facilities have also found candidates through college recruiting.
"When times are tough, people look for the security that quite often these jobs offer," said Smith, of the American Association of Jails. "No matter how hard the times are, you need people to run the jails."