The patchwork system that has evolved to address the situation has drained morale among staff members and placed additional strains on prisoners.

From the outside, the prison complex in Florence, Colo., is a forbidding citadel of steel, concrete and coiled barbed wire, housing some of the most notorious inmates in federal custody. To hundreds of its employees, it is a stressful, isolated, short-staffed workplace.

Like many other federal prisons, Florence is undergoing a staffing crisis, with head counts on some guard shifts so low that teachers, case managers, counselors, facilities workers and even secretaries at the complex have been enlisted to serve as corrections officers, despite having only basic security training.

“If I don’t show up, if I’m sick, or if I’m in training, or if I’m on vacation, they will force someone to take my shift,” said John Butkovich, a corrections officer and union representative at Florence, which includes the country’s most secure supermax unit and three less restrictive facilities. “It creates a safety issue: If you aren’t savvy with the housing unit, or the position you’re working, you are not going to spot a problem before it starts. This isn’t the way it was meant to be.”

Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies around the country, especially corrections departments, are struggling to hire and retain employees at all levels, as higher-paying, less demanding jobs draw away people facing rising housing, food and transportation costs. Nowhere has that been more of a problem than at the chronically troubled Bureau of Prisons, with about 160,000 inmates at 122 prisons and camps — employing a work force of about 34,000 people who often earn less than state and county corrections workers.

That has put enormous strains on the system. Union officials contend that some recent incidents of inmate-on-inmate violence might have been prevented with greater staffing levels. The depleted work force, they say, has played in attacks on staff members, including in 2021, when a guard at a Florida prison responsible for monitoring more than 100 prisoners was assaulted with a metal shank.

It is also a self-perpetuating crisis. Taxing work conditions sap morale, prompting an exodus of experienced corrections officers, which, in turn, forces supervisors to lean harder on the employees left. Inmates suffer, too. They are often forced to wait longer for basic services, like laundry and maintenance, and the diversion of educational staffing can delay early releases.

“It’s so depressing,” said Aaron McGlothin, a warehouse worker and union representative at Mendota federal prison near Fresno, Calif. “We are always so far behind the curve.”

The prison population in federal facilities has been dropping since 2015, a trend accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic and federal sentencing changes. But those numbers obscure the corrections officers who form the backbone of the system departing for neighboring local law enforcement agencies or sliding over to better positions at other federal agencies.

About 21 percent of the 20,446 positions for corrections officers funded by Congress — 4,293 guards — remain unfilled as of September, according to a report in March by the Justice Department’s inspector general’s office.

Colette S. Peters, who took over as the director of the Bureau of Prisons in August, said in an interview that filling those vacancies “is our No. 1 priority,” even as she tackles a host of other issues, including the sexual abuse of female prisoners and staff members, the overuse of solitary confinement and an increase in suicides.

“Our hiring problems were compounded by the pandemic where we lost people who were faced with this disease day in and day out,” she said in a conference room at the bureau’s headquarters near the Capitol. “And, as we all know, the economy has shifted. In some rural areas, we have more or less saturated the employment market, and in urban areas, we’re competing against employers who can offer a lot more money.”

Ms. Peters, who oversaw Oregon’s state prison system before moving to run the federal system, has outlined a series of initiatives intended to bolster the work force, including offering a one-time signing bonus of 25 percent for each new corrections officer.

The bonuses have yielded modest gains, she said, with job applications rising drastically at the start of the year. But they have done little to address the underlying issue of compensation in a system that offers starting salaries under $40,000 in some areas, officials and employees said.


Colette S. Peters, the director of the Bureau of Prisons, outlined a series of new initiatives that are intended to bolster the work force.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

Raising wages would require a major increase in the budget of a bureau, an often neglected division of the Justice Department. That is not likely to happen. Funding has remained relatively flat over the past several years, and the Biden administration is seeking only a tiny increase in the prison bureau budget next year — 2.9 percent, well below the annual inflation rate of around 5 percent.

Until recently, prison officials have sought to play down the extent of the crisis, according to employees and union officials. But almost every facility in the country has had to take extreme measures to cover the gaps, by redeploying workers, in what is known as “augmentation,” or by forcing guards to take mandatory overtime shifts.

In late March, Dave Demas, a corrections officer at Canaan, a Bureau of Prisons facility in northeastern Pennsylvania, had just finished a shift when a supervisor informed him that he had to cover an additional one because a co-worker could not come in.

“You’re hit,” the man told him. “You have to stay another eight hours.”

While the inmate population at Canaan has remained relatively stable, the number of guards has decreased. In 2016, the prison, which has high- and minimum-security sections, had a fixed staffing level of 262 corrections officers. On any given day, that number is now closer to 210, Mr. Demas said, and accounting for those on military, paternity, personal or disciplinary leave, it is closer to 200.

“A lot of people are leaving,” he added. “They used to want to stay in correctional services. It was a good, stable job — but now they are looking for any avenue to get out.”

Canaan is no ordinary prison. In 2013, an inmate fatally stabbed a guard, Eric Williams, 34, during a 10-minute attack that left him with 200 wounds.

The killing prompted a reappraisal of staffing, and it was top of mind to Representative Matt Cartwright, Democrat of Pennsylvania, when he successfully pushed Congress for an emergency appropriation of $180 million late last year to provide additional hiring incentives at federal prisons.

That money is nearly exhausted, and Mr. Cartwright said the White House budget request “isn’t enough” to relieve the stress.

“It’s hard to hire people these days,” he said. “It’s especially hard when you’re running prisons.”

The patchwork system that has evolved to address the situation has far-ranging consequences.

In one California prison, the laundry room had to be shut down for a day while the supervisor in charge was sent to guard a cellblock, leaving prisoners to stew in dirty clothes, one staff member said. In another part of the same complex, warehouse workers were forced to leave their posts, stalling the delivery of critical supplies, including toilet paper.

There have been sporadic reports of increased violence at some facilities where employees who were not full-time guards were pressed into service.

But perhaps most concerning of all is the use of educational and vocational aides for other jailhouse duties. Their absence can delay or disrupt prisoners’ access to skills needed on the outside, and complicate their efforts to accrue points required under the 2018 First Step Act, which was intended to speed up the release of inmates deemed to be of limited risk, said Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a prisoners’ rights group in Washington.


Florence is one of the best-known prisons in the country, housing some of the notorious prisoners in the federal system.Credit…Andrew Miller for The New York Times

Florence, one of the best-known prisons in the country, houses some of the most notorious inmates in the federal system, including one of the Boston Marathon bombers and Zacarias Moussaoui, who was implicated in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Its staff must cope not only with the pressures of ensuring safety, but also with more workaday issues: The prison is in a fast-growing part of Colorado, equidistant between Pueblo and Colorado Springs, with rising home prices and the transportation costs associated with long-distance commuting.

The bureau offers salary enhancements, typically 10 percent, each year in places like Florence that have difficulty retaining and recruiting corrections officers because they are isolated or have high costs of living. Last July, officials in Washington, concerned by low staffing levels, raised the payout to the maximum allowed — 25 percent.

That has helped a bit, but the facility is still short-staffed, with 30 to 40 vacancies on any given day, according to an estimate by Local 1169 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents officers and other prison workers, including at Florence.

Employees who are not full-time corrections officers have become a permanent and essential stopgap at the prison, being called in as replacements more than 2,200 times last year, according to government records obtained by the union.

To address this reality, Colorado’s two senators, Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, both Democrats, are requesting that the Bureau of Prisons raise their annual bonuses to 25 percent from 10 percent, in line with the incentives offered to full-fledged corrections officers.

“This understaffing has placed employees and the inmate population in an unsustainable environment and created a reliance on mandatory overtime and reassignment of noncustody staff,” they wrote last December in a letter to Ms. Peters’s predecessor. “Fatigue, exhaustion and low morale have reduced staff productivity and led to more sick leave, retirements and resignations.”

The bureau has not yet responded to the request.



Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: