Penny Wise and Safety Foolish: Understaffing at Federal Prisons

July 30th, 2018 by Attorney Dan Carman

Penny Wise and Safety Foolish: Understaffing at Federal Prisons

When the government takes you into custody, they are responsible for your safety and well-being. Whether it’s local, Kentucky or federal law enforcement it’s against the law to simply lock you up and make you fend for yourself because government doesn’t want to spend money on appropriate staffing levels. If you or a loved one is being held in a federal facility, the story told in the New York Times recently should sound familiar.

It reports on what was an average day at a federal prison in Big Spring, Texas.

  • More than 400 sex offenders, gang members and other inmates were crowded into a three-story building.
  • Two guards were on duty. One was a correctional officer; the other was a health care worker in civilian clothes pitching in because of the lack of regular officers.
  • Outside the facility someone who normally counsels inmates patrolled in a vehicle, armed with three weapons.
  • In a unit for the most dangerous inmates, a clerk from the commissary patrolled the corridors.

A federal government hiring freeze started four days into the Trump administration, pushing the federal prison bureau’s employment into a downward spiral. Though lifted for other agencies, the hiring freeze stayed in place for the prisons for several months. The number of correctional officer vacancies grew from 1,306 to 2,137 between December 2016 and March 2018.

Because of a chronic shortage of correctional officers the practice of using other facility employees has become common. Inmates are more threatening to staff and more violent with each other. Workers blame the problem on staff shortages which force inexperienced workers into correctional officer roles they’re not fully trained to perform. Inmates are aware of the situation and some try to take advantage of it.

One teacher at a Florida facility stated that a trained, experienced correctional officer will have a good idea when a fight will break out. Secretaries or health professionals trying to fill that role probably won’t. “The inmates see this and they know we are outnumbered. They know we have people working in the units who don’t have the slightest idea what to do.”

Support staff normally get a few weeks of training in correctional work and are contractually obligated to serve as substitutes for correctional officers. A big fear of staff and inmates is, given the low staff levels, if violence breaks out, few, if any, guards may come to help. Another problem is the increasing amount of contraband getting into facilities due to insufficient staff. Sometimes it’s thrown over fences during the day to inmates spending time outside.

With teachers and nurses acting as correctional officers, they’re not teaching classes to help rehabilitate inmates or care for inmates’ medical needs. Counselors patrolling fences aren’t performing any counseling. Endangering the lives of inmates and staff for the sake of saving money just shows how backward the administration’s priorities are when it comes to the federal prison system.

If you or a family member is facing criminal charges, you need a criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights and your future. Contact us today so you can discuss your situation with one of the attorneys at the Lexington, Kentucky-based Carman Law Firm. As criminal defense attorneys with years of experience, we offer thorough, experienced representation.