Skip navigation

Healthcare and Handcuffs: BOP Assigns Medical Staff to Security Positions

by Christopher Zoukis

The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), facing chronic guard shortages, has resorted to either paying overtime to officers who work additional shifts or assigning nurses and other healthcare staff to security positions. In the latter case, one major shortcoming is that medical employees have minimal security training.

The Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General deemed the staffing shortage a “crisis,” with the BOP experiencing a medical staff vacancy rate of 40 percent or higher. For a corrections system struggling to provide healthcare for almost 190,000 prisoners, there were 656 medical job vacancies as of March 2016.

The nurses assigned to guard duty by the BOP were, for the most part, members of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), which has around 900 members working in federal prisons. PHS nurses, clinicians and therapists have “routinely been pressed into patrolling prison recreation yards, securing cell blocks, transporting inmates to and from maximum security zones, [and have] pulled regular shifts monitoring inmate telephone calls and correspondence,” USA Today reported on April 27, 2016.

Further contributing to the BOP’s questionable reassignment of nurses and other medical staff is a conflict between BOP staff members, who are represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), and PHS medical staff, who, as members of a uniformed service, are prohibited from joining a union. Because unionized BOP employees can exercise their seniority rights in selecting more desirable work assignments, PHS nurses are sometimes left with the least desirable jobs, locations and shifts – and assigned to guard duties.

In a dispute that was decided in a 2-1 ruling in October 2015, the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) addressed the BOP’s practice of reserving some nursing positions for PHS employees, instead of allowing BOP unionized nurses to exercise seniority rights over all such positions. The FLRA ruled against the BOP, meaning PHS staff are more likely to be assigned to security duties than medical jobs. See: U.S. Department of Justice and AFGE, Federal Labor Relations Authority, Case No. 0-AR-5107 (Oct. 16, 2015).

Both James Currie, executive director of the PHS Commissioned Officers Association, and Eric Young, president of the Civilian Prison Workers Union, agreed that assigning medical employees to security-related positions was a dangerous practice. Yet it is a practice the BOP has utilized in prisons in at least five states: Mississippi, North Carolina, Kentucky, Texas and Washington.

“If the BOP continues to treat [PHS] officers as second class citizens and employees, they may have even greater staffing problems than they can imagine,’’ stated Currie. “I can see a gradual ... mass exodus from BOP to other agencies and departments of the federal government.”

Citing one example, Currie said a senior PHS nurse was notified of her assignment to a 12-hour patrol of the prison’s recreation yard when a supervisor gave her a pair of handcuffs. “This is a person who has over 20 years working as a nurse” who had “never worked that [security] duty before,” he explained. According to Young, civilian kitchen workers and secretaries have been assigned to BOP security details, too.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona noted it “used to be that correctional officers had to ensure the safety of nurses, physicians and other [PHS] officers working in prisons,” but now the BOP is assigning medical workers to fill security positions.

U.S. Rep. David Jolly remarked that such assignments are unacceptable. “The whole practice should be eliminated,” he said, because it is “hard to justify why a person should be acting as a security officer when they are not qualified to do that. At the very least, the men and women working those posts should have confidence that they are working shoulder-to-shoulder with people who are properly trained.”

Currie echoed that sentiment, adding, “I don’t believe these people [PHS] have any real security training at all.” Although PHS staff receive some security training, it is based upon the premise they will not be routinely assigned to positions typically filled by guards.

In response to such criticism, the BOP acknowledged that the reassignment of PHS employees was a regular practice, but apparently did not see any problem with it. “The mission of the Bureau of Prisons is to protect public safety by running safe and secure prisons and helping inmates prepare for reentry.... Adequately staffing custody posts is critical to carrying out this mission,” stated BOP spokesman Justin Long. “When an insufficient number of correctional officers are available to cover an institution’s critical custody posts on a given shift, institutions rely on overtime and the reassignment of other institution staff, including PHS officers, who are all considered correctional workers to cover such posts.”

Currie strongly disagreed. “They are using everyone to cover [vacant positions] down there,” he said, in reference to the BOP assigning PHS medical staff to security posts at a federal prison in Yazoo City, Mississippi. “It’s a powder keg.”