Federal Bureau of Prisons employees have some of the most dangerous jobs in the federal government, regularly dealing with violent or mentally ill inmates held by the federal prison system.
And, according to the correctional officers who work those jobs, the current work is even more dangerous than usual, as many prisons in the federal system are critically understaffed and unable to hire the necessary talent.
The difficult working conditions of understaffed prisons make the jobs even less appealing to applicants, creating a vicious cycle where a limited number of officers must make up the work designed for much larger numbers.
“Right now, I believe it’s dire. This is the lowest our staffing has ever been in the Bureau of Prisons,” said Eric Young, a BOP correctional officer and a national council president at the American Federation of Government Employees.
“We are seeing full-time posts for correctional officers not being filled even though they’ve been declared mission-critical.”
This state of affairs comes amid political grandstanding from the Trump administration, which has been touting federal prison reform that would ultimately allow tens of thousands of inmates to be released from prison over the next 10 years. But for now, the federal law enforcement agency responsible for the custody, control and care of individuals incarcerated across the country struggles to operate.
A juggling act
According to Christopher Boss — president of AFGE Local 1010 and a correctional officer at the Federal Correctional Complex in Beaumont, Texas — the staffing challenges have led to a 100-officer deficit at his facility.
Practically, the prison is supposed to have 30 additional officers left over after filling the day’s roster to account for sick personnel and time-off requests, said Boss.
Currently, Beaumont doesn’t even have enough officers to fill the roster at all.
“I’ve never seen it this bad since I’ve been here,” said Boss, who has worked as a correctional officer for 20 years.
“We’re basically just treading water.”
Many prisons were impacted by the nearly three-month federal hiring freeze that President Donald Trump instituted in 2017, which the BOP opted to extend after the freeze was lifted for the rest of the government.
Some prisons faced nearly two years in which they were unable to hire more staff.
To compensate for incomplete rosters, prisons have a couple of options: subbing other staff into correctional positions or requiring that officers work overtime.
This takes advantage of a specific BOP policy that all staff be correctional officers first — meaning that teachers, secretaries and nurses employed by the agency can be asked to perform correctional duties should the need arise.
“All staff assigned to correctional facilities are law enforcement officers … regardless of their occupation,” a BOP spokesperson told Federal Times. They receive the same amount of training as correctional workers, both initial and continuing, and all staff are informed at the time of hire that they are expected to perform law enforcement functions during routine and non-routine situations.
While within BOP policy, the process of putting non-custody staff in vacant correctional officer posts is known as augmentation. And it’s not a universally popular practice. As Young puts it, just because a person is trained as a correctional officer doesn’t mean that they have the day-to-day knowledge that regular correctional officers use to keep order and safety in a prison environment.
“Those people work in their profession every day, we work in our profession every day, obviously we’re going to do it better than those non-custody staff,” said Young.
“The inmates know that we’re short-staffed when they regularly see teachers and secretaries filling in behind correctional officers, who know their job and know their patterns of behavior in the unit and can recognize when something is going down.”
The prison can also institute voluntary and then mandatory overtime for their employees to make sure that each day has the needed number of officers. For example, when Beaumont was bringing its officers through a mandatory annual training, some officers were required to work up to 16 hours a day to cover both their hours at the prison and training time.
According to Boss, those shifts of required overtime used to take place only a couple times a year. They now occur multiple times a week.
The end result is tired officers that stand a greater chance of getting hurt on the job, have less time to spend with their families and risk mental health repercussions.
“There’s a lot of data that shows correctional officers have a higher propensity of depression, have a higher propensity of substance misuse, just as a form of coping in working in an environment where you see the underbelly of humanity,” said AFGE legislative coordinator and BOP psychologist Genevieve Grady.
Ian Strombom, an AFGE local president and BOP correctional officer, said that the agency has already had a couple staff suicides this year, due to the stress of their work environment.
“Just practically speaking, that’s a very exhausted officer who’s working a very dangerous housing unit with 120 convicted felons,” said Grady.
“As a psychologist, [I know] it lowers their attention, it lowers their response, it lowers their thinking and ability to rationally maneuver through the decisions that they have to make.”
Officers will therefore regularly work a standard eight-hour shift — from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., for example — and then be asked to work another eight hours from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., often without a chance to arrange for additional meals. They must then come in the next day at 6 a.m. after a long day and reduced sleep.
“The officers who are working 16-hour posts are obviously exhausted,” said Boss.
“A lot of our staff commute from the surrounding areas up to an hour-and-a-half drive a day. You’ll make mistakes.”
Young pointed to the death of crime boss and FBI informant Whitey Bulger at a West Virginia prison in October 2018 as the direct result of understaffing.
“[Prisoners] don’t have any problem taking over a prison when they feel like the staff aren’t able to keep them safe,” said Young.
“Even during the government shutdown we had a hunger strike at the facilities because we didn’t have enough correctional officers to report to work.”
Strombom said that the prison he works at, Sheridan, has already spent over $600,000 on overtime before the first half of the fiscal year is even over, funding that could in theory be used to cover the pay and benefits of new hires instead.
You wouldn’t know that there was a staffing problem looking at the agency’s budget justifications over the past couple of years.
The fiscal year 2019 budget justification called for a reduction in 1,168 positions at BOP “to adjust the inmate-to-staff ratio at the BOP’s institutions in light of the declining inmate population and consequent decline in institution crowding.” It also called for the closure two standalone minimum-security camps and the transfer of their inmate population to satellite camps, and the realignment of regional offices to “remove redundancies and focus efforts on mission accomplishment at the institution level.”
But the fiscal 2020 budget justification seems to tell a very different story in terms of prison population, predicting an increase from 180,210 inmates currently — with 151,620 inmates in federal custody — to 187,240 by next year. That increase could potentially be due to the Trump administration’s increased focus on prosecuting drug-related crimes.
Should that projection prove accurate and BOP staffing numbers stay relatively the same, federal prisons would face an average inmate-to-staff ratio of almost five-to-one, far worse than the 4.4-to-one ratio that the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General listed as a top management challenge for the agency in 2018.
“Resource limitations, staffing shortages and aging infrastructure, combined with this possible prison population increase, has the potential to exacerbate BOP’s challenges in ensuring that its institutions are safe and secure,” that report said. In 2018, BOP facilities exceed total capacity by 14 to 24 percent on average, with high-security institutions at the top of this range.
Young felt that the ideal ratio would be in the neighborhood of three-to-one, which was the standard at federal prisons in the 1990s.
“I believe that would [make] staff more comfortable in the workplace,” he said.
“Giving them that reassurance alone will likely get some people to stay and work in a prison environment.”
So why the discrepancy in what the budget documents request and what the officers see as a major deficiency?
Young and Boss posit that the motivation is political, where BOP leadership wants to please the administration by showing that they can keep at or below their established funding levels. Upping hiring of prison staff also doesn’t meld terribly well with the current messaging from the Trump administration on federal prison reform, which focuses on reducing the inmate population and therefore costs.
But, according to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., improving the staffing ratios at federal prisons is the only way for prison reform initiatives to succeed.
“These staffing shortages are particularly troubling at a time when BOP is responsible for implementing the recently enacted First Step Act, which requires BOP to provide significant levels of programming and activities for incarcerated persons. Successful implementation of the law is at risk if BOP continues to rely heavily on augmentation and require teachers and counselors to work as correctional officers, instead of fulfilling their programming duties,” Durbin told Federal Times.
“I was disappointed to see that the president only requested $7.062 billion in his FY2020 request for BOP salaries and expenses — $188 million less than the amount that Congress appropriated for FY2019.”
Grady, however, sees the discrepancy as misleading numbers.
Some prisons in the BOP are doing quite well in terms of staffing, she said, largely because they are in more popular areas to live or can offer a higher location-based pay than other prisons.
Those well-staffed prisons can skew the results overall to make the understaffing problem appear modest, obscuring the reality that the officers on the ground see on a daily basis.
Unattractive hiring prospects
Even when hiring is authorized, recruitment for correctional officers is a challenge.
According to the BOP spokesperson, the agency currently has 33,850 staff members and is authorized to have a total of 38,557 employees under 2019 appropriations. Nearly half the vacancies are correctional officers and the remaining are other correctional staff.
From May 2018 to March 2019, BOP made 6,468 selections for positions around the country, and are upping their recruitment incentives to bring more candidates in.
As part of an ongoing effort to attract BOP employees to hard-to-fill institutions, which are expected to see vacancies only grow with a flood of expected retirements, the BOP recently approved a 10 percent recruitment incentive for applicants and a 10 percent relocation incentive for current employees selected to transfer to these hard-to-fill locations.
But correctional officer pay remains below that of other federal law enforcement positions or jobs with state and local government.
“We’re the lowest-paid agency out of all of them,” said Strombom. “Border Patrol, Customs, the FBI, [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] — most of them go to automatically GS 11 or 12, and we’re only automatic to a GS 7. Most people look at this agency as a steppingstone into federal law enforcement, rather than a place to retire.”
A GS 7 law enforcement officer has a base salary of just over $41,000, whereas a GS 11 makes more than $50,000, according to Office of Personnel Management pay tables. This does not include locality pay offered to employees that work in expensive parts of the country.
According to Boss, 20 years ago BOP starting salaries were largely on par with local law enforcement or state prisons, but they have since fallen behind.
“Some of them are starting out at what you could make here after five to 10 years of employment,” said Strombom. And while the job offers excellent benefits now, even that appears uncertain long term.
Strombom points to efforts by President Trump to change the retirement system across the federal government to remove the special retirement supplement, which is a Social Security bridge payment that comes from the mandatory retirement age of 57 until workers are actually Social Security eligible. The bridge was put in place to compensate for the fact that BOP employees and other law enforcement officers are forced to retire before even partial Social Security payments kick in.
The most recent government shutdown also didn’t do the agency any favors in attracting talent, as correctional officers were required to report to work throughout the funding lapse without pay.
“I don’t know many people who are like, ‘Yeah, I’d love to sign up for 16-hour shifts at an unpredictable rate and maybe not get paid,’ ” said Grady.
A widespread recruitment problem
The Bureau of Prisons staffing problem is not reserved to correctional officers either. Hiring for nurses at BOP, for example, was described as one of the agency’s greatest challenges in budget justifications in both 2019 and 2020. There are three reasons for that noted in the justifications:
First, most medical school graduates prefer to go into higher-paying specialty fields, rather than into primary care, leaving BOP to compete with the rest of the medical community for the few primary care physicians.
Second, federal agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Institutes of Health can apply Title 38 compensation standards to their medical positions, which significantly boosts the base pay of those employees. BOP, however, applies Title 5 pay, which is lower.
And third, the rural locations of many prisons make it a hard sell to medical professionals and their families.
According to Susan Brantley, a registered nurse and AFGE secretary, the lack of enough nursing staff means that BOP nurses must do the same amount of work with fewer people to do it.
“Not only are you doing the jobs of nurses on the outside, but you’re dealing with inmates when you’re doing it,” said Brantley.
“In the BOP you’re not just a nurse, you’re a correctional officer first, so you are told to respond as an officer in certain situations. You’re kind of wearing two hats.”
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.