SUSSEX, Va. (WVEC) -- Corrections officers are worried about their safety working inside Virginia’s prisons. They told 13News Now it is not a matter of if something will happen, but when. We've uncovered a staffing situation with turnover so high, COs said it is a danger to the public.

History has shown what happens when prisons are short staffed. Inmates have tried to take advantage. People have been hurt. Lives were lost.

"The Department of Correction(s) is in a crisis to keep officers and recruit officers," wrote one corrections officer. "The inmates see it and when they decide to ban(d) together they can take over if they wanted."

We got those messages after we uncovered federal authorities believe a severe staffing shortage is partly to blame for the attack and attempted escape at Pasquotank prison. But the words aren't describing Pasquotank Correctional Institution. They're describing the situation inside prisons in the Commonwealth.

A corrections officer, who asked to remain anonymous, said, "It could be a time bomb ticking in Virginia."

So, we dug deeper and requested the vacancy rates at each prison in the Commonwealth. We received pages of mostly redacted data in response to our Freedom of Information Act request. The records showed the overall vacancy rate has hit the double digits.

CO-COSR Vacancy Rate - JAN 2018 Redacted

It's something the corrections officers' union has been keeping a close eye on.

“Our staffing levels are dangerously low,” said Donald Baylor, the union's director of organizing. “My belief is we need to do something. We need to do it quick, fast and we need to do it in a hurry.”

Baylor worked in Virginia prisons for almost 30 years.

“Right now, we have a difficult situation because posts that should be filled are not filled and you have one person carrying the burden of sometimes three or four people,” he described.

Details in a PowerPoint presentation from the Department of Corrections illustrated the issue: for the third quarter of 2017, D.O.C. hired 565 COs. In that very same time period, 510 COs left the department.

It left a net gain of only 55 officers.

“When we have officers who get into a situation where they need help, they need help in a hurry,” Baylor explained. “When you don't have enough people in your facility to respond, help is going to be slow coming and just a few seconds could mean the difference between life and death.”

Baylor believes this isn't just a problem behind bars.

“The biggest risk would be that somebody leaves one of those facilities or escapes or something of that nature and someone is hurt or killed,” he worried.

He doesn't want the general public to think “Oh, this doesn't affect me.”

“If something happens it can bring chaos to every community that's around that facility,” Baylor feared.

Right now, officers are forced to work overtime to make sure essential posts are filled. In some cases they're moved to other prisons, where they don't know the lay of the land, to fill in the gaps. It causes problems and stress.

Baylor urged something needs to change. The union is holding a town hall to lobby state officials and lawmakers.

We requested interviews with both the director of the Department of Corrections and the Chief of Operations. Both requests were declined.

Still, officers are hoping somehow their message is heard.

“There are certain areas and certain jobs that are so critical to public safety, you just can't continue to afford to work short,” Baylor added.

As one officer wrote us, "Virginia has been lucky, but luck can soon run out."

After interview requests were denied, 13News Now reached out to the Virginia Department of Corrections multiple times for an official statement for this story. A spokeswoman sent us copies of a PowerPoint presentation officials gave to the lawmakers during the General Assembly session. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Powerpoint Presentation: DOC - House Appropriations Committee, 1-18-18

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