A shortage of Correction Officers at the Federal Metropolitan Correction Center in lower Manhattan is forcing officers to work three or four double shifts a week, according to Serene Gregg, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3148.
As a consequence of the low staffing levels, Ms. Gregg said the facility has been having trouble keeping contraband out of the facility. “Last week they found bullets, and inmates getting K-2 is a constant problem,” she said. “And you have to pick your battles because you have to worry if you end up in a physical altercation, will anybody be there to come to your rescue?”
A Grueling Routine
“This overtime is mandatory because there is no one to relieve you,” she said. “This is just basic math. You work 16 hours, and we know we can’t afford to live in Manhattan, so your’re driving an hour to work and an hour home. How long are you going to get to sleep and be with your family?”
Conditions at MCC are not an anomaly, but emblematic of a national staffing crisis throughout the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. It has continued under the Trump administration, which called for cutting 6,000 Correction Officers slots, according to AFGE and an in-depth report done recently by the New York Times.
Last month, General Mark Inch, who had been appointed Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons just nine months earlier, suddenly resigned, telling his DOJ superiors he had grown tired of the Trump Administration’s failure to respect “departmental norms.”
Prior to taking the helm at BOP, Mr. Inch had a 35-year career in the military that included leading Army Corrections,
The Trump Administration’s doubling down on immigration arrests at the southern border is putting additional pressure on short-handed facilities.
More Inmates, Fewer COs
“As the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) continues to grapple with under-staffing and further cuts, five Federal prisons are beginning to receive more than 1,600 ICE detainees,” wrote the AFGE .
The Council of Prison Locals in a press release on the deepening crisis said, “The massive influx of new detainees will exacerbate the short-staffed prisons, endangering the lives of correctional officers, inmates, detainees themselves, and the surrounding communities.”
“The men and women who work at the Bureau of Prisons risk their lives every day they show up to work, and now they’re being asked to jeopardize themselves further by looking after an even-larger population without the proper training, support, or planning,” Council President Eric Young said in a statement. “How are our officers supposed to protect and care for these detainees when they barely have enough resources to care for the prisoners under their charge now?”
“Right now, we don’t have enough correctional officers at our facility,”AFGE Local 3969 President John Kostelnik, who represents workers at Victorville, said a statement. “And instead of addressing that issue and working to keep our officers safe, we are being told to accommodate a 27-percent increase of individuals in our custody. It’s unbelievable, especially when the rationale is that ‘it’s only 120 days.’ It only takes a few seconds for an inmate to hurt or kill an officer, so what will happen in the next 120 days?”
The Real Cost of Overtime
A growing body of occupational-health research indicates extended and mandatory overtime can be a health risk for employees, who become susceptible to mental and physical burnout. According to a research paper prepared for the International Association of Chiefs of Police house organ, the over reliance on overtime also presents operational risks and long-term costs beyond the payroll.
“Conservative estimates indicate operational costs of approximately $10,000 more per employee, per year, for those engaged in shift work during non-conventional work hours. Compounding this issue is the $136-billion annual cost of fatigue due to health-related lost productivity among employees,” according to the paper’s author, Capt. Rex Scism of the Missouri Highway Patrol’s Research Development Division.
“The distinctive challenges of the job coupled with underlying aspects of fatigue contribute to shorter lifespans among law-enforcement professionals,” Mr. Scism wrote.
He also observed that excessive overtime can pose a heightened operational risk because “fatigue is a leading cause of impairment on the job—it is four times more likely to cause impairment in the workplace than alcohol and drugs,” he wrote.
Like Drinking On the Job
Maria Haberfeld, a Professor of Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of 20 books on law-enforcement human-resource management, said in a phone interview that working tired was indeed like drinking on the job. “Of course it is a form of impairment,” she said.
Ms. Gregg said her facility has already blown through itsnnual entire overtime budget in the current fiscal year, which runs through Sept. 30.
“This is a nationwide issue,” she said. “People are leaving these jobs to go to ICE, and the agency’s response has been to not just rely on all this overtime but also on augmentation,” referring to the Bureau of Prisons’ power to compel employees who usually serve as clerical staff, electricians, maintenance staff, teachers or counselors, to double as Correction Officers.
At the beginning of their career, regardless of their job title, all Bureau of Prison employees get six weeks of basic Correction Officer training.
“This augmentation is actually something the Bureau of Prisons does that’s very dangerous,” said Tyrone Covington, national vice president for women and fair practices for AFGE’s Council of Prison Locals, in a phone interview earlier this year. “You can’t take someone who’s been working their whole career as a case manager, food-service worker, or vocational instructor, who’s not used to doing Correction Officers’ duty and put them” in these “front-line prisoner-contact roles.”
‘Inmates More Brazen’
“Dozens of workers from prisons across the country said inmates had become more brazen with staff members and more violent with one another,” the Times article stated. “At a prison in West Virginia, violent incidents increased almost 15 percent in 2017 from the year before…Workers blame the problems on their depleted numbers and the need to push often-inexperienced staff members into front-line correctional roles, changes not lost on the prison population.”
The Times also reported that as BOP employees were pulled away from their primary roles in vocational training, education, facility maintenance, and health care, there were negative consequences in those other areas.
“At the Tallahassee facility, the number of inmates earning high school equivalency credentials dropped by nearly 60 percent from fiscal year 2016 to 2017, according to bureau documents, mirroring a decline in prisons across the country,” The Times reported.
In April the BOP staff shortage and increasing reliance on augmentation came up during the Senate hearings on the Department of Justice budget. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin complained to Attorney General Jeff Sessions that under-staffing at West Virginia’s high security Hazelton facility had already resulted in 60 serious security incidents, including the murder of an inmate, since the beginning of 2018.
Sessions Cites Cost
He said that rather than augmenting, the BOP should hire more Correction Officers. “They are having serious problems there,” Mr. Manchin said. “The staff morale is low. We are having a hard time keeping people now because of the danger.”
Mr. Sessions responded by saying that eliminating the policy of augmentation “would be highly expensive.”
The issue of short-staffing has been around for a while. In 2015 the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan Congressional fact-finding agency, reported that “despite a recent decline in the Federal prison population, BOP’s facilities remain overcrowded and BOP is challenged to address related safety concerns, contain its costs, and more effectively manage the activation, maintenance, and repair of its facilities.”
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump told MSNBC host Chris Matthews that he would “do a lot of privatizations and private prisons” because it “seems to work a lot better.”
No Relief in Sight
More than 18,000 Federal inmates out of the system’s 183,465 are in private facilities. By contrast, 60 percent of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 400,000 detainees are held in private jails. The BOP expects Mr. Trump’s shifts in Federal immigration and law-enforcement policy to increase the inmate population by two percent this year and one percent the following year.
Starting in 1997, the Federal Government increasingly turned to the private sector for correction services. Between 1980 and 2013 the Federal inmate population grew by 800 percent as Presidents from both parties doubled-down in the war on drugs. Over that period, the U.S. saw its inmate population exceed two million at local, county, state and Federal facilities.
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