The union representing Federal Correction Officers is warning that President Trump’s plan to cut more than 6,000 positions at the Bureau of Prisons puts the safety of staff, inmates and local communities at risk.
In addition to the 14-percent roll-back, the Trump Administration is pushing to increase the Federal government’s reliance on privately-operated prisons, something the Obama Administration tried to phase out.
‘Putting Lives at Risk’
“President Trump came into office preaching about the need for a safer America, but instead he is putting the lives of Federal law-enforcement officers and our communities at risk,” said American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr., who represents more than 80 percent of the staff at the nation’s Federal prisons. “The men and women who risk their lives guarding our prisons deserve proper staffing levels to ensure they can do their job and make it home safe. This mandate is bad for citizens, it’s bad for prison staff, and it’s bad for inmates.”
Serene Gregg, president of AFGE Local 3148, which represents staff at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, says the lack of a full roster of Correction Officers is already exacting a heavy toll. “The staffing levels at my institution presently are severely low and have resulted in astronomical overtime numbers,” she said in an email. “So much so that the staff are overworked and burned out mentally, physically and emotionally. It is almost guaranteed for most officers that once they report to work, they probably won’t go home at the end of their shift due to the volume of unassigned positions from staff shortages.”
In Mr. Trump’s first executive budget proposal, the administration targeted 6,132 Bureau of Prison positions for elimination. That roll-back included 1,800 correction-officer slots. Those cuts were never enacted by Congress, but last month on a conference call agency managers and the union learned the Trump Administration was moving forward with them for Fiscal Year 2019, which begins Oct.1.
Below Bare Minimum?
Since 2005, most of these positions went unfilled after the Bureau of Prisons developed its “Mission Critical” strategy, which set prison staffing in all departments at what it believed were the bare minimums needed to operate the prisons safely. But union officials say the strategy failed to take into account the need for additional personnel to cover employee sick leave, military leave, other absences and retirement.
As a consequence, the agency became increasingly reliant on “augmenting” the active-duty Correction Officers by calling up cooks, foremen, secretaries, electricians, teachers, accountants, or counselors to fill the gaps in staffing. 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. “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.
A Domino Effect
He said pulling inexperienced employees from other departments also takes a toll on the functioning of the entire facility. “So, you pull the caseworker and the casework piles up or you shift out education counselors and you make it harder for the inmates to fulfill their goal of getting their General Equivalency Degree. This all puts a strain on the inmate population, and it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong if we continue down this road.”
In the event of real emergency, there’s no back-up, according to the union. “This also results in less non-custody staff able to respond to emergencies in the prison in the event of violence,” AFGE said in a press statement. “Augmentation can result in one correctional worker supervising hundreds of dangerous prisoners, including terrorists, gangs, and murderers inside each facility with no backup.”
“We are supposed to be a model for other states to follow,” said Eric Young, AFGE’s Council of Prison Locals president.
“We can’t dilute these programs that help inmates learn a marketable skill, provide health services, psychological counseling, or drug treatment. If they are idle, they’ll be plotting their escape or making contraband.”
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.”
The GAO also reported that, despite the drop in overall inmate population, “BOP is 30 percent [overcrowded] overall and more than 50 percent [overcrowded] across its highest-security institutions. Additionally, BOP’s inmate-to-staff ratio has increased since 2000 and officer safety is continuously at risk.”
In the years since the agency has used the bare-bones staffing model, two Federal Correction Officers have been murdered. In 2008 Correction Officer Jose Rivera, 22, was fatally stabbed at USP Atwater, California. Mr. Rivera had served two combat tours in Iraq and had been working for the Bureau of Prisons for a year. In 2013 Correction Officer Eric Williams, 34, was murdered at the Canaan Federal Prison in northeast Pennsylvania.
This month AFGE plans on taking its case to Capitol Hill to lobby Congress to rescind the cuts to Bureau of Prisons staffing and head off the Trump Administration’s push to further privatize.
Trump Embraced ‘Privates’
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. 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.” His campaign and Republican-linked political-action groups got hundreds of thousands of dollars from the GEO Group, one of the nation’s leading private jail corporations. According to an analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) documents by Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a fellow at the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, 45 percent of GEO’s revenue came from Federal Government contracts.
More than 18,000 Federal inmates out of the system’s overall 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. Mr. Trump’s shifts in Federal immigration and law-enforcement policy are expected to increase the number of detainees and inmates.
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.
In August 2016 the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General issued a report that examined how well the Bureau of Prisons was monitoring the private prison contracts, and how those profit-making prisons were performing. The review found that the bureau failed to adequately monitor the private jails and that they “incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP institutions” and “also had higher rates of assaults, both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates on staff.”
That same month, then-U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a memo instructing the Bureau of Prisons to phase out the use of private prisons. She cited the decline of the Federal inmate population, a trend she asserted would continue.
During the Obama presidency, the DOJ began a comprehensive review of U.S. law-enforcement trends to explore what was driving the U.S. to have the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
In its 2013 Smart On Crime Initiative report, the agency was highly critical of what it said was a national over-reliance on incarceration. “This pattern of incarceration is disruptive to families, expensive to the taxpayer, and may not serve the goal of reducing recidivism,” the report said. “Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.”