Like many other public facilities, filling vacancies has been an ongoing challenge at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. And struggles to fill positions has precipitated a tighter staff and employees needing to work considerable overtime hours to cover shifts.
With that in mind, the Wilsonville prison — which functions as a temporary intake spot for all male inmates in the state and a full-time facility for all female inmates in the state — will host a job fair from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday Jan. 11, at the Clackamas Community College Harmony campus in Milwaukie. Attendees can receive application assistance, schedule a drug test and register to take a required job-aptitude test at the event. The prison is hoping to bring as many as 40 workers aboard.
According to statistics provided by Coffee Creek, there are 44 either "hard" vacancies (meaning truly vacant) or "ghost" vacancies (meaning someone technically is in the position but they aren't currently working) for sergeants, corporals (both of which are supervisor positions) or correctional officers. Christine Popoff, the prison's assistant superintendent for correctional rehabilitation, also said registered nurse positions are typically hard to fill.
Since its opening in 2002, Coffee Creek has been plagued with several instances of staff accused of committing sexual abuse or, more recently, smuggling drugs inside. And Popoff said finding the right people, not just anyone willing to take the job, is a priority.
"For us, we would rather have a vacant position than somebody who poses a risk in that position," Popoff said. "We won't just hire anybody. This job takes skill; it takes dedication; it takes somebody who is willing to be reliable, work on a team, work well by themselves. We won't compromise on that because we can't create risk."
Along with the stigma of prisons reinforced by the entertainment industry, staff members list competition with employers across the Portland metro area including county jails that pay more — the high cost of living locally (former staffers have transferred to prisons located in cheaper areas of the state), the dearth of people looking for work and state requirements such as applicants needing to pass background checks and drug tests as reasons for the shortage. Popoff also cited a lack of awareness.
"A lot of times people don't think of this as a job," she said. "They don't think about Coffee Creek."
Vacancies have taken something of a toll. In fact, in January 2019, 1,147 hours of overtime were added to worker's schedules due to vacancies, second only to sick leave (1,239) as reasons for overtime.
Then in October 2019, over 3,300 overtime hours were used because of vacancies. Along with long hours, staff members said adults in custody (AIC) not getting as much time outside due to a lack of manpower to supervise outdoor sessions is a negative effect.
The prison also has fairly high annual turnover rates — about 10% for correctional officers and corporals and almost 20% for registered nurses. Sometimes staff members not coping well with the stresses of the job can lead to turnover, said Correctional Sgt. Essex Houston.
"I've seen a staff member see someone (an AIC) commit self-harm and say, 'I'm not up to coming back,'" he said.
Correctional Lt. Nina Ervin said prospective employees should view working at Coffee Creek as a career and mentioned benefits, such as a pension, as incentives for that.
"We want them to come with the mindset that this is long term. We don't want you here short term," Ervin said. "In 25 years you're going to retire, have great benefits. You're going to enjoy what you do and look forward to the next chapter of your life."
Both Ervin and Houston take pride in their job and are happy with how their careers have progressed.
Ervin, for her part, was laid off by a company in Wilsonville about 18 years ago and then applied for a job as a correctional officer at Coffee Creek after learning about it at a job fair. Certain tasks like using physical force to bring an inmate to the ground were daunting at first. But Ervin stuck with it and eventually moved up to corporal, sergeant and now lieutenant.
"By Year 5 I really loved my job," she said.
Though physical force is sometimes necessary, the Coffee Creek leaders said emotional intelligence and strong communication skills are maybe the most important qualities for excelling in prison jobs.
Some prior experience that might seem counterintuitive they mentioned includes telemarketing, customer service and being a school lunch lady.
"Individuals have to be able to understand, rationalize and then react," Ervin said. "If somebody is having a hard day and you don't have the communication skills, how am I going to get that person to respond appropriately and in a positive manner versus encouraging the negative they have already put themselves in?"
The prison has placed more of an emphasis on treating AIC's like people rather than prisoners in recent years and Ervin views taking the time to help, encourage and listen to those in custody as one reason she finds her job meaningful.
"An AIC said 'I just want to thank you today. You took the time to listen to me, let me vent.' It's about encouraging them, role modeling, being responsible and treating them like human beings," she said.
At the same time, Popoff said workers are taught to maintain a state of hypervigilance. They must be aware that a dangerous situation could be around the corner.
However, she said: "Most days we get out of here without putting hands on anyone."
Coffee Creek's hiring woes may not end anytime soon. According to Popoff, about 50% of staff are eligible for retirement in the next five years.
"We have to be mindful of the exodus that could happen as well as the turnover we could experience," she said.
For those looking for a job, Popoff recommended they consider Coffee Creek, talk with current employees and take a tour of the facility.
"They'll be surprised to
find out what a positive environment it could be," Popoff said.
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