In February 2018, federal union officials from across the nation met with legislators in Washington to lobby against proposed cuts in the fiscal year 2019 federal budget that would prevent the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) from filling an estimated 7,100 currently vacant staff positions in federal prisons. Of the 37,237 BOP civilian positions authorized by the 2018 budget resolution, finalized this March, only 19,073 are correctional officers. Under the administration’s budget proposal for 2019, both the number of civilian positions and correctional officers would fall, to 36,909 and 18,674, respectively.

The 2019 BOP budget proposal calls for closing two of the current seven stand-alone minimum-security camps, which would eliminate almost 300 corrections positions. The proposed budget would have the current inmates of the to-be-eliminated camps transferred to other minimum-security camps that are not stand-alone, but instead share locations with other BOP facilities. Other BOP cuts in the 2019 budget proposal include consolidating six regional offices into four, eliminating fewer than 100 corrections positions. But the biggest reduction in the proposed 2019 budget, affecting nearly 800 corrections officers, would come from lowering the inmate-to staff ratio BOP uses as its standard for staffing levels.

Some union locals representing prison workers (like American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) locals in Pennsylvania representing workers in Allenwood and Lewisburg federal penitentiaries, and another AFGE local in Florida for workers at the federal prison in Orlando) have taken an unusual step to publicize what they say are dangerous staff shortages. They’ve put up billboards featuring a photo of a coffin, headlined by the warning, “Budget Cuts lead to Deaths in Federal Prisons.” Below that ominous headline, the posters urge viewers to “Tell your Congressional leaders today.”

Federal prison worker unions are particularly critical of what BOP terms “augmentation,” i.e. when employees (such as nurses, technicians, teachers, foodservice workers and the like, whose normal positions do not involve security duties) are ordered to perform security duties. But why, and how frequently, this happens are matters of some dispute. Although BOP maintains all its employees are correctional workers, and so can be called on at any time to fill a security position, a June 2016 memo from former BOP acting director Thomas Kane advised wardens using non-security staff in security positions should only be “a last resort.”

Nevertheless, using non-security personnel for security duties in some locations has become frequent, or even routine.USA Todayrecently reported, based on a sampling of work rosters at one federal prison complex in Florida, as many as three dozen civilian staffers might be performing guard duty on any given day last year. Those temporary guards included staffers hired as teachers, financial managers, laundry workers and even an administrator for religious services. Congressional committees dealing with BOP’s budget have expressed their displeasure with the practice, and union leaders say it is in large part a BOP tactic to avoid making new hires or incurring overtime costs. Some civilian staff say they have not been trained for security work, and some have won victories over BOP in hearings at the Federal Labor Relations Administration, which decides labor disputes involving federal workers, over whether they can be ordered to perform security duties without adequate training.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily NewsPrison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).