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Federal Prisons Use Nurses and Cooks as Guards While Officials Push to Fill Private Prisons

by Christopher Zoukis

The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) houses over 181,400 prisoners in more than 120 facilities nationwide. As a rule, federal prisons are overcrowded and understaffed. With the Trump administration demanding a 12 to 14 percent workforce reduction – which equates to 5,000 to 6,000 BOP job positions, including an estimated 1,800 guards – the Bureau has become more reliant on two controversial practices: augmentation and privatization.

BOP policy states that all employees are regarded as “correctional workers first.” As such, when a required security post is vacant, civilian workers may be forced into what the Bureau calls “augmentation.” In practice this means nurses, secretaries, teachers and other non-security staff are given keys, handcuffs and a radio, and directed to fill guard posts. [See: PLN, May 2017, p.12].

Kristan Morgan, a nurse practitioner at a federal prison in Tallahassee, said she has been required to report for guard duty in scrubs and running shoes.

“We get a radio and set of keys, and we don’t know which keys fit which doors,” she related.

Augmentation is supposed to be reserved for emergency situations. But an article in USA Today reported increasing use of the practice by the BOP. Laurie Robinson, a former Assistant Attorney General who sat on a congressional task force that examined federal prisons in 2015, said the regular use of augmentation is a bad idea.

“For this [civilian staff reassignments] to be occurring as a matter of course is not a good thing,” she noted. “This goes against sound corrections practice.”

“All prisons need to be staffed by the appropriate number of people, to do the work that needs to be done,” added U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly. “The people who work there shouldn’t be put in unsafe situations.”

Meanwhile, top BOP administrators have directed prison officials to transfer more prisoners to privately-operated facilities. In a January 24, 2018 memorandum with the subject line “Increasing Population Levels in Private Contract Facilities,” BOP Assistant Director of Corrections Programs Frank Lara asked wardens to submit lists of “eligible inmates” for re-designation to private prisons.

According to the memo, the transfers were requested “[i]n order to alleviate the overcrowding at Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) institutions and to maximize the effectiveness of the private contracts.” Notably, prisoners eligible for such transfers are limited to those who are healthy with low security classifications and short sentences.

The net result of staffing cuts, augmentation and the transfer of low-security prisoners to private facilities is decreased safety in BOP-run prisons. J. David Cox, Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), said the practice of civilian workers guarding higher-security prisoners is a disaster waiting to happen.

“With less corrections officers in the prisons, BOP has turned to augmentation ... which means that cooks, foremen, secretaries, electricians, teachers, accountants or counselors are augmented to replace officers inside the prison,” he explained. “Augmentation can result in one correctional worker supervising hundreds of dangerous prisoners, including terrorists, gangs and murderers inside each facility with no backup.”

While Cox ignores the reality of non-security workers regularly volunteering for such overtime positions, he makes a valid point about safety concerns. Staff who haven’t been trained to even understand which key goes to which door should not be in a position to open said doors, much less supervise prisoners.

Meanwhile, Frank Lara, the BOP official who wrote the memo directing more prisoners to be sent to privately-run facilities, no longer works for the Bureau. After retiring, he is now employed as director of operations for The GEO Group, which operates six facilities that house federal prisoners under contracts worth $147 million in fiscal year 2018.

AFGE Council of Prison Locals president Eric Young said Lara’s hiring by GEO was “The biggest damn conflict of interest that I’ve ever seen.” 

Sources: www.usatoday.com, www.muckrock.com, https://admin.govexec.com, www.correctionalnews.com, www.federalsoup.com