WORST IN THE WEST: American Federation of Government Employees officials say that a staff shortage that is partly due to the coronavirus has created a crisis atmosphere in which Federal prison employees in the Western Region of the U.S. have been stretched to their limit working mandatory overtime, and called for a 25-percent retention bonus as the best way to curtail turnover and stabilize the system.

The union representing Federal prison workers says a 25-percent retention bonus is needed to reverse plummeting staff morale it claims poses a threat to the safety of both inmates and staff.

While the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has sometimes authorized retention bonuses, that has occurred in individual facilities with a perceived need rather than system-wide. Any bonus exceeding 10 percent of salary would need the approval of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

'Endangering Lives'

"We are facing an emergency situation on several fronts, and it's literally endangering the lives of our staff and the inmates themselves," Council of Prison Locals Western Regional Vice President John Kostelnik said in a statement. "Yet so far our demands for the agency to begin hiring staff and to ensure we have the proper health and safety protections from the coronavirus are falling on deaf ears."

Last month, regional representatives of the Council, which is part of the American Federation of Government Employees, wrote BOP Regional Director Melissa Rios that the toll of the pandemic combined with a hiring freeze imposed in June had created a staffing crisis.

They stated, "The hiring freeze has turned the staffing crisis into an emergency. Our staff are being stretched thin and worked to the breaking point. The fear of staff committing suicide [is] now reality, and it is happening at a rate that is heart-wrenching."

Federal prison officials confirmed that over a recent one-year period, eight staffers took their own lives, as did 33 inmates.

The BOP Western region covers 20 facilities located in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

'Committed to Safe Staffing'

While the agency declined to comment on "internal correspondence" its press office stated that it was "committed to ensuring appropriate staffing levels to maintain the safety and security of staff, inmates, and the institution. We are actively seeking to fill vacant positions with particular focus on Correctional Officer vacancies and we continue to evaluate and use a breadth of employment incentives to attract and retain staff."

Besides using a wide variety of social media, the BOP is holding virtual recruiting events as well as reaching out to professional groups, including the military.

Two years ago, the agency said, an effort to add 1,000 workers in a four-month period produced 2,088 hirings. "The agency continues to focus on hiring and retaining staff nationally, including offering hiring incentives where appropriate."

 The union's alarm was sounded as the entire Federal prison system is dealing with a dramatic spike in virus cases: 3,231 among inmates with 881 afflicted staff members as of Jan. 9. Eight months earlier, just 73 inmates and 153 staffers had active cases.

Over the past two years, 275 inmates and seven staffers died of the virus, with 42,000 inmates and nearly 9,000 staff members contracting the disease. The federal system has 135,000 inmates and employs 37,000 staff members.

'Must Be Able to Retain'

"The point is clear; WE NEED MORE STAFF!", the AFGE correspondence stated. "Not only does the Bureau of Prisons, Western Region, need to hire more staff, we need to ensure we can retain staff. This can be accomplished by ensuring competitive pay, as the facilities in the Western Region are not in line with others," such as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

To cover vacant posts, the BOP relies on a controversial option it calls augmentation--the pulling of employees from other civil-service titles in commissary, health, and education services within the prison. All BOP employees receive some basic CO training. The AFGE previously told Congress this practice undermines critical inmate services.

The union's [ush came after Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal, under pressure from congressional Democrats, announced he would retire as soon as a successor could be found. A 30-year correction officer, he was named to the top job by the Trump Administration two years ago. 

The New York Times reported that after the Associated Press revealed that more than 100 BOP employees had been arrested, convicted of or sentenced for crimes since 2018, Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, called for Mr. Carvajal to step down.

Soon after he became Director, the agency came under fire for not taking stronger steps to protect staff and inmates against the virus. The AFGE filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor alleging that the BOP and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs failed to act to protect workers in highly vulnerable congregate-care facilities.

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