WARREN — Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Now would be a good time to shift the momentum of prison reform to the employees responsible for administering and undertaking the daunting task of rehabilitating those who enter the correctional system. If real change is sought, then everything must be brought to the table for consideration.

Let’s be real. The jobs of prison guards and social workers are not easy, and they seem unrewarding – both personally and financially. Most correctional staff are savvy and have intuitive understanding of their job and what it entails, and are certainly worthy of tremendous admiration.

Maine State Prison in Warren is plagued by staff shortages and an overreliance on overtime, creating staff burnout and interfering with inmate programming on a weekly basis.

This is evidenced through the prisoner population being locked down so that staff may conduct their mandatory meetings, respond to security and medical codes throughout the facility and feed other units in the facility’s chow hall. Program cancellations are often par for the course because of security-related issues, which can crop up at any time.

To put the guard-to-inmate ratio into clear perspective, the former Maine State Prison in Thomaston, which had a total capacity of 450 prisoners, was replaced in 2002 by a brand-new, state-of-the-art, 916-bed prison a few miles away in Warren.

At the old prison, there were about 75 to 85 guards per shift to watch over the entire inmate population. The prison in Warren has a medium-security unit housing large inmate populations. Well over 450 prisoners reside in the medium-security building, with anywhere from eight to 12 staff members watching over the population, and even less staffing on the evening shifts.

Nationwide, Maine is below average when it comes to wages paid to prison guards and other correctional personnel. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median New Hampshire correctional officer salary was $41,430 as of 2012 – a median hourly wage of $19.92. Meanwhile in Maine, the salary was $33,700 – an average of $16.20 per hour.

My sense is that although guards and other staff do not feel a lot of self-satisfaction, they take their jobs seriously. So it would seem reasonable to pay staff accordingly for the duties they are trained to perform and the image they are expected to project.

Morale is not boosted by staff walking around feeling shortchanged and resentful on the job. From my perspective, there are few or no incentives for guards or other prison personnel to become career-minded in corrections. The prison system has become a stepping stone for those who seek employment elsewhere, at great expense to the taxpayers.

When new guards are hired, they come in, get trained and put on probation, then end up leaving because there is no incentive for them to stay. Getting away from employing 18- and 19-year-olds who have little life experience and limited education would be an essential and smart fix. Prison guards should be 21 years or older and have some educational background.

Raising hiring standards and increasing starting pay to at least $25 an hour would attract higher-caliber people, improve the retention rate, reduce recidivism and save taxpayers money. This wage increase would also make guards’ pay competitive with the wages for state police and staff at county jails throughout the state.

Albert Einstein coined the phrase, “The only source of knowledge is experience.” Prison officials, the unions for prison guards and other correctional staff and legislators all must foster continuing dialogue through studies that pertain to this issue.

The status quo results from the lack of policies based on unbiased empirical socioeconomic data and implemented by legislators and others. Management by objective and human resources issues must become part of the discussion.

The fact that cost-of-living and national average pay requirements are not being met, and given the existing staff recruitment and retention predicament, these questions must be asked:

What caliber of people do the residents of Maine want to trust to run a functional, safe and constitutional prison system? Do the people of Maine want to waste dollars on a continual basis because of the level of incompetence that will develop?

I dare say the people of Maine would want to make sure that their prison system is run effectively, with experienced and competent staff to maintain low cost.