I-Team: Wanted - Nevada prison officers

LAS VEGAS - There's a state agency that's usually looking for candidates, but finding people to do the job is still a challenge.

Nevada's prison system needs officers.

Jonathan Allen-Ricksecker works at Nevada's largest prison in Indian Springs, about 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

"They'll pat me down, check all my pockets." 

He'll have limited contact with the outside world once his shift starts. No cell phones are allowed within the perimeter of the facility. There's also an electric fence.

"It is a lethal fence. So, potentially if they do touch it, death would result," Allen-Ricksecker said. 

Here at High Desert State prison, he goes by the name of Allen.

"This facility is really a city, to be perfectly frank," Allen-Ricksecker said. "It's a small self-contained city." 

He's scheduled for an eight-hour shift, but he may have to work overtime.

"It does affect the work/life balance as far as because my wife doesn't know that I'm coming home this afternoon obviously that'll impact the child care, the kids, all the things that people naturally take for granted of the outside environment," he said.

A lack of officers can mean lack of safety.

"There was an officer hurt within the last couple of months," Allen-Ricksecker said. 

An officer was attacked in the chow hall.

"He was knocked out by the inmate and stomped repeatedly," he said. 

Where Allen says two officers should be assigned to a room full of inmates, but sometimes there's only one. Staffing is also limited in pods.

I-Team reporter: Vanessa Murphy: "Do you feel safe working in here?"

Jonathan Allen-Ricksecker:  "I've built up a bit of a tolerance level for it. So, for me, I would be used to it. I wouldn't say comfortable because I wouldn't want to be complacent." 

I-Team reporter: Vanessa Murphy: "So, for a unit with two pods like this one, there's two officers.  One supervising in this office, another supervising in the bubble." 

At any moment officers can be alerted about emergencies throughout the prison and this time, when we rushed to a pod for a medical call, there was no employee in the office.

I-Team reporter: Vanessa Murphy: "Where's the officer here?"

Jonathan Allen-Ricksecker: "There's one officer up in the bubble right now and the other one might be up - we're still looking for the second officer."

I-Team reporter: Vanessa Murphy: "So, how come there's not an officer at the desk?"

Jonathan Allen-Ricksecker: "I'm gonna have to ask him where his officer is. There should be a second, a floor officer." 

It appears the officer was responding to an inmate's cell.

It's no secret, the Department of Corrections is having a tough time filling the jobs. Here's why: Most Nevada prisons are in more rural locations so it can be a long drive for employees which means time and gas.

Also, the DOC is competing with other law enforcement agencies. In southern Nevada, the starting salary is more than $50,000 at Nevada Highway Patrol and the Metro, Henderson, and North Las Vegas Police departments, but at the DOC, officers start at just more than $44,000.

During the last legislative session, the DOC asked legislators for money, in part, to deal with staffing issues.

Funding was provided for raises but the DOC's pay is still low compared to other agencies and Allen-Ricksecker says other police departments end up hiring DOC officers after they've been trained on the DOC's dime.

'That's a big problem for the turnover," he said. "For me, I'm topped out so I'm making what a Metro officer does starting whereas another officer coming in would have to go through around 10 years to get where I am and that can be very problematic."

I-Team reporter: Vanessa Murphy:  "Is it worth it?"

Jonathan Allen-Ricksecker: "It is worth it in the long run, not the short run. The benefit package that I will receive will be one of several retirement sources to fund me in the future. Because I started very young, I'll be able to retire when I'm less than 50 years old and most probably start a second career."

He says he's worked at the prison for 17 years and as a father of five. He lives frugally and is making ends meet from his paycheck here.

The challenge for the DOC is finding employees like him who will stay.

"I mean if we don't have enough staff and we still have mandated functions that we need to perform, something's gotta give," he said.

A spokesman says, as of September, there were nearly 14,000 people locked up in Nevada prisons. The total number of officers in September was nearly 1,800. There's a total of 228 vacancies.

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