Brazen prisoner escape in Tennessee highlights guard shortage in U.S.

Prison guard staffing shortage threat

Last Updated Aug 12, 2019 6:57 PM EDT

Covington, Tenn. — The escape of a dangerous inmate from a prison in Tennessee is raising more questions tonight about the nationwide shortage of prison guards. Curtis Watson was recaptured Sunday, just hours after he was spotted on a home security camera about 10 miles from the west Tennessee state penitentiary.

Watson is accused of sexually assaulting and murdering a prison executive Wednesday before driving away on a tractor. His brazen escape highlights a prison system that is overcrowded and understaffed.

This threatens not only the safety of inmates and guards, but also communities outside prison walls.

Watson was on the run for at least an hour before corrections officers realized he wasn't at the prison. When word of his escape spread the community was on edge.

Prison breakouts are not isolated incidents. Nationwide, in the past few months, brazen escapes have happened from Washington state to Missouri and Indiana.

Megan Quattlebaum of the Council of State Governments justice center addressed the issue with CBS News. "But you talk to other folks, directors of Southern state systems, and I've heard them use words like 'epidemic' to describe how serious the problem is in their states," she explained.

There are more than 1,800 government-run adult prisons across the country. Staffing shortages are a problem from Oregon to Oklahoma. Jobs often go unfulfilled. In Tennessee, 10% of correctional jobs are vacant. In Maryland it's nearly 20%

Corrections officer advocates say part of the reason for shortage is the high turnover rate, the danger of the job and the pay.

The average corrections officer makes approximately $21 an hour and just over $44,000 a year.

"It's a historically good economy, with low unemployment rates in many places," Quattlebaum said. "These jobs aren't always offering salaries or benefits that are competitive."