News from the States: Evening Wrap

By: - January 11, 2022 10:06 am

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Good evening, newsletter fam! Welcome to the debut edition of States Newsroom’s Evening Wrap, a nightly rundown of the top trends and stories from our network of newsrooms across the country. We’re so thrilled to have you! I’m Kate Queram, a native Midwesterner, government nerd and recovering newspaper reporter, and I’ll be your guide. On tap: Jails, ballot drop boxes and a dearth of government transparency. Let’s do it.

The big takeaway

Correctional facilities have grappled with staffing shortages for decades, a predictable byproduct in an industry with grueling work, low pay and high turnover. But the one-two punch of a new, highly contagious COVID-19 variant and a wider labor shortage has made it a much, much bigger problem.

The issue is pervasive enough that we could zoom in on pretty much any state to get a ground-level view of it, but today, let’s focus on New Jersey. Even pre-pandemic, officials there had trouble recruiting people for correctional careers, where salaries begin at $40,000 and entry-level employment requires completing a 16-week training academy.

A decade ago, 800 people went through that program each year. Now, it’s closer to 200. And about 32 officers retire each month, further diminishing an already depleted workforce.

Again, this was before COVID. The situation is now critical. In December, roughly 1,600 of 7,300 people employed by the state Department of Corrections took sick leave because of the virus. Another 450 workers tested positive last week, according to the New Jersey Monitor. Facilities in New Jersey have done what they can to mitigate cases, providing universal testing, vaccine and booster shots, limited transfers and required masking, but the virus continues to run rampant.

If a correctional officer calls in sick, their shift has to be filled by someone else. As more and more officers get infected, that work is foisted onto an increasingly small pool of employees via mandatory 12-hour shifts, postponed leave, and consecutive days on duty with no breaks. In the end, a group that already suffered from low morale and high turnover is being buried.

Inmates and their families have urged the state to reinstate an early-release policy that thinned prison populations to limit exposure during the early days of the pandemic. It’s unclear whether this is likely.

Strict lockdowns, where inmates are largely confined to their cells, would likely also help, but the procedure invites additional disruptions, which prison officials are loath to inflict on beleaguered staff when tensions are already high. Last year, staff reported 200 assaults, up from 148 the year before, including 70 instances of inmates throwing their bodily fluids at workers.

The stress and burnout goes both ways. Nearly 1,900 inmates tested positive for the virus in New Jersey in the past month, but even for those who remain healthy, the pandemic is a struggle. There’s fear of the virus itself, plus increased isolation, limited or canceled visits from friends and family, and reduced access to medical and mental health services at the exact time that both physical and mental health are most tenuous.

At the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque, staffing shortages and turnover are so severe that inmates are overseen only by a “skeleton crew” of medical and psychiatric professionals that advocates say can’t care properly for the facility’s roughly 1,200 residents.

The shortage, outlined in a Dec. 29 filing in a yearslong class-action lawsuit, has often left a single nurse in charge of the entire facility, reported Source New Mexico. Inmates are routinely left in their cells for days at a time with only periodic checks by staff, leading many to miss court appointments and phone calls with family. New inmates often aren’t screened correctly upon intake, increasing the likelihood that they won’t receive necessary detox care or the proper medication to manage psychiatric and medical conditions.

Again, none of this is uncommon in correctional facilities, even pre-pandemic. But it’s particularly egregious in Albuquerque, where county officials signed a $64.8 million contract with Tennessee-based Corizon Health to alleviate this exact type of situation. One of its main goals, reportedly, was to ease the strain on overworked guards.

It was a weird choice. Corizon had been previously fired by the state Department of Corrections after hundreds of prisoners filed a lawsuit alleging that its doctors neglected, mistreated and sexually abused them. None of this was a secret, but county officials didn’t discuss any of it before unanimously approving the contract, then congratulating themselves for providing “quality medical care” for inmates.

The common thread here — and one that’s all too recognizable to anyone living through the age of COVID — is the exacerbation of long-standing problems that festered for years despite being repeatedly and thoroughly documented. These widespread, institutional failings are almost impossible to fix under the best of circumstances, and it’s safe to say that these circumstances are not the best — and won’t be for the foreseeable future.

Also trending

You, person reading this newsletter, probably value the idea of a free press that keeps tabs on government so that you, a citizen, can also keep tabs on government. This puts you at odds with Senate Republicans in Iowa, who decided to bar reporters from the floor of the chamber for the first time in more than a century.

The change, per the Iowa Capital Dispatch, comes down to semantics. Senators, it seemed, really struggled with the word “media,” on account of it’s just super hard to define in these wacky 21st-century times.

“As non-traditional media outlets proliferate, it creates an increasingly difficult scenario for the Senate, as a governmental entity, to define the criteria of a media outlet,” the Senate secretary and a spokesman for the majority leader said in a joint email.

And they can’t just ask someone else (like, I don’t know, the dictionary) to define it, either, because that “is ultimately still government action.” After much soul-searching, the senators agreed on a solution — moving all reporters, regardless of “media” outlet, from their desks on the floor up to the nosebleed seats of the public gallery.

Reporters will still be in the chamber, sure. (And even upper-level seating won’t stop them from telling you what’s happening.) But without a floor seat, their access is no different than yours or mine. On the floor, they can clearly hear and see everything. They can grab legislators for comment and clarification. They can build relationships with sources. And when they make mistakes, lawmakers can let them know immediately.

The bright spot here (if there is one) is Iowa’s open records law, which will continue to give reporters and citizens a good (but not great) way to keep tabs on the government. Not so in Missouri, where Republican Gov. Mike Parson is making it a priority to lower the shades on government transparency.

It’s a two-pronged plan, per the Missouri Independent. The first proposal would allow government agencies to charge more for records based on the amount of time attorneys spend reviewing them, which if enacted would defy a recent ruling by the state Supreme Court. The second would restrict the definition of public records, allowing the state to classify as private draft documents, some meetings, and contact information for job applicants, employees, customers and constituents of governmental bodies.

A spokeswoman for Parson didn’t respond to a request for comment, so the plans will have to speak for themselves. Worth noting/so ironic I can’t make it up: We have the details of the plans thanks to a records request filed by the Independent.

State of our democracy

It’s been a year and four days since armed rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, and the Big Lie — that former President Donald Trump somehow secretly won the 2020 election but was denied a second term — is alive and well and informing election policy around the country.

We might as well start in Georgia, America’s one-stop shop for voting restrictions. Lawmakers there are reconvening for the new legislative session, where they’re likely to prioritize bite-sized changes to election law after taking care of the main course last year.

The first tidbit on the chopping block? Ballot drop boxes. Butch Miller, the Senate’s president pro tempore and a candidate for lieutenant governor, hopes to nix them to prevent election officials from “disregarding” security measures like cameras, reported the Georgia Recorder.

This is necessary, he said, to restore public trust in elections, which has suffered in part because a lot of people see ballot boxes as a “weak link when it comes to securing our elections against fraud.” (I wonder where people might have gotten this idea? Anyway, it turns out that because ballot boxes are manufactured specifically to keep ballots secure, they do not actually perpetuate widespread voter fraud, which by the way does not exist.)

Not every Republican in Georgia supports the idea, but it remains pervasive throughout the country. Republicans in Wisconsin are taking similar aim, conducting a private vote Monday to force the state’s election commission to craft emergency rules governing the use of drop boxes.

It’s a wonky and confusing political move that’s essentially designed to avoid having to pass legislation on the matter. That’s attractive to Republicans after last year, when they approved a bill changing the rules around drop boxes only to see it vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat.

But Evers can stop this process too, reported the Wisconsin Examiner. That means the likely outcome here is a lot of time and energy wasted on something that won’t change anything and wouldn’t have helped anyway. In other words, politics as usual.

From the newsrooms

One last thing

Police conducting a traffic stop in Pennsylvania found a live deer in the back of a hatchback, the Associated Press reported. The car’s occupants said they knew the deer was still alive “but kept driving anyway.” Police let the animal go. Yes, there’s video. And yes, the only thing to do now is watch this scene from Tommy Boy.

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Kate Queram
Kate Queram

Kate is the author of the News From The States Evening Wrap, a daily newsletter that analyzes the top trends and themes emerging in news from the states. She’s based in Washington, D.C. Kate is a recovering newspaper reporter who most recently worked as a senior correspondent for Route Fifty, a Washington, D.C.-based publication that covers state and local government. Her work has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association and the North Carolina Press Association. A native Wisconsinite, she holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and master’s in journalism from the University of Maryland. She lives in the burbs with her husband, twin toddlers, three pets and zero personal space.