One Valley prison is ground zero as Federal prisons lean on teachers, nurses to guard inmates

Nearly one-third of federal correctional officer jobs in the United States are vacant, forcing prisons to use cooks, teachers, nurses and other workers to guard inmates.

The Justice Department budgeted for 20,446 full-time correctional officer positions in 2020, but the agency that runs federal prisons said it currently employs 13,762 officers. The Bureau of Prisons insists that many of its facilities still have a full complement of officers who focus solely on maintaining order.

For years, the Bureau of Prisons has been plagued by systematic failures, from chronic violence to high-profile deaths. But the staffing crisis is reaching a breaking point, and the pandemic hasn’t helped. Nearly 7,000 employees were sickened with COVID-19. Officers were sent to hospitals to guard inmates being treated for the virus. Four staff members and 235 inmates died.

Decisions to use other staff as guards are based on a facility’s needs and are made to ensure critical positions are covered, the agency said. Staff members also may be pressed into duty as correctional officers “during irregular periods such as a pandemic,” the agency told The Associated Press.

Overworked employees are burning out quickly and violent encounters are being reported on a near-daily basis. At a prison in Illinois, there are so few staff that officers are sometimes forced to work 60 hours of overtime in a week. At a facility in California, a fight broke out among inmates soon after a teacher was sent to fill in as an officer.

The issue came up when wealth financier Jeffrey Epstein took his own life while in one of the most secure jails in the country, the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York. One of the two prison workers assigned to guard Epstein the night he killed himself was a warehouse worker who was augmented to work as a correctional officer. Both were working overtime because of staffing shortages.

Union officials have raised the alarm about staffing problems, even holding a rally this week outside a medium-security prison in Mendota, California. But federal efforts to attract more workers with 25% recruitment bonuses have, so far, barely made a dent. Starting salary is just under $43,500, with some promises of making up to $62,615.

But that’s much less than what even some other federal agencies are offering, not to mention competition from police departments, state prisons, oil refineries, factories and warehouses.

“We’re tired of the agency putting a price tag on our lives,” said Aaron McGlothin, the union president at FCI Mendota in California. “We’ve had staff members killed in the line of duty. We’ve had staff members injured in the line of duty. At what point do they realize they’ve got a problem to fix, and quit putting a Band-Aid over it?”

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Staff reports from The San Joaquin Valley Sun staff.