Housing Detainees in Overcrowded Prisons Poses Health Risks

The interagency agreement to send 1,600 detainees to five federal prisons is posing severe health and safety risks to correctional officers, detainees, inmates, and the surrounding community.  

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has already been under a huge strain since President Trump took office, following the misguided hiring freeze, budget cuts, and staffing reductions. Now, the men and women who safeguard these prisons are being asked to oversee detainees without any real support.  

Overcrowding has posed a grave health risk. In the three weeks BOP has been housing detainees, there are already confirmed reports of inmates and detainees with tuberculosis (TB), varicella (chicken pox), and scabies. Increased staffing shortages affect the safety of inmates, detainees, and officers alike.  

The decision by the administration to house detainees at the already short-staffed federal prison system has already been disastrous. Administration officials gave local correctional officers and staff 24-48 hours’ notice that they would be charged with the 1,600 detainees on top of their existing compliment of inmates. This action by the administration resulted in prisoners being shuttled within the overcrowded and understaffed complexes and being sent to outside prisons on short notice, leaving officers scrambling to prepare.  

Once detainees began arriving, it became clear to the men and women staffing those prisons that the coordination to make this plan a success was lacking.  

At Federal Correctional Complex, Victorville, in California, officers began receiving busloads of around 250 detainees per day for four days, ultimately housing slightly more than 1,000 detainees.  

“We were told by officials that we needed to process these individuals as quickly as we could,” said AFGE Local 3969 President John Kostelnik. “If there were major health concerns, we were told to ‘get people in and we’ll worry about it later.’”  

Already at Victorville, there have been two confirmed cases of chicken pox, 38 cases of scabies, and one active case of TB. Staff are not being informed of most of the outbreaks, and defying OSHA regulations, they still don’t have masks to prevent the spread of TB as the ones provided were expired or not certified for that use. 

“We have at least one employee here who is pregnant, and others who could be as well,” said Kostelnik. “They should be as far from chicken pox as they can get, but management will not allow women to transfer out of the unit housing detainees. We are crumbling within these walls while our pleas go ignored. Is it going to take a staff member getting ill, or perhaps even a fatality before these issues are addressed?”  

Victorville, like many federal prisons in the United States, is already dealing with poor morale due to staffing shortages and augmentation – the practice of using accountants and secretaries as correctional officers to make up for staffing shortages. Now, morale has sunk to an all-time low. 

Chronic understaffing  

Since the “Mission Critical” initiative launched in 2005, AFGE Council of Prison Locals has been fighting for proper staffing levels at federal prisons. And with almost 2,000 new wards to care for and protect, they’re ramping up for a bigger fight.  

“It’s no secret that correctional officers have been hamstrung by the agency for years, dating back to 2005,” said AFGE Council of Prison Locals President Eric Young. “Negligent short-staffing has led to single officers overseeing as many as 400 violent inmates alone and has resulted in assaults and fatal attacks on the men and women who have dedicated their lives to keeping good order in our prisons and our communities.”  

Not only that, but the working people who joined the agency as accountants and secretaries are being exposed to massive danger by being augmented as officers to make up for the staffing shortfall.  

“All our people are capable of the work alongside our custodial staff in emergencies, but how does it make more sense to ask someone whose job it is to reconcile bills or handle clerical duties - including answering phones – to oversee the likes of hardened killers that include terrorists and gang members like MS-13 instead of hiring correctional officers we so desperately need?” Young asked. 

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