A severe shortage of correctional officers in federal prisons is making headlines across the country and even overseas, thanks to the advocacy of AFGE locals and the Council of Prison Locals.
On May 21, the Associated Press published an article on the staffing crisis, reporting that nearly one-third of federal correctional officer jobs nationwide are vacant. This has resulted in officers working vast amounts of overtime and non-officer employees including cooks, teachers, and nurses being assigned to work as correctional officers under a process called augmentation.
The AP spoke to several AFGE local presidents identified by the Council of Prison Locals and ended up quoting two in the article: Local 4070 President Jonathan Zumkehr at USP Thomson in northern Illinois, and Local 1237 President Aaron McGlothin at FCI Mendota in central California.
“We’re tired of the agency putting a price tag on our lives,” McGlothin told the AP. “We’ve had staff members killed in the line of duty. We’ve had staff members injured in the line of duty. At what point do they realize they’ve got a problem to fix, and quit putting a Band-Aid over it?”
The AP article has been republished by nearly 600 outlets across the United States and overseas – as far away as Malaysia. It also prompted the Las Vegas Sun to publish an editorial calling for Congress to increase prison funding, raise salaries, and take other actions to address the staffing crisis.
The two local presidents quoted in the AP article also appeared in local news reports about the staffing crisis at their prisons.
USP Thomson, a high-security facility roughly an hour north of the Quad Cities, is currently short 110 correctional officers – seven staff resigned in the last two weeks alone – due to low pay and a shortage of affordable housing. The fewer than 500 employees on staff there are taking on more than 2,000 overtime shifts each month to compensate for the shortages, LP Zumkehr told WQAD for a segment first broadcasted on May 25.
“If they don’t do anything, this cycle will never end. We’ll bring on new staff, they’ll work at Thomson for 18 months and they’ll transfer, they’ll leave,” Zumkehr said.
Local 4070 has been calling for the Bureau of Prisons to provide 25% retention pay to officers, but the agency so far has refused. Rep. Cheri Bustos, whose congressional district includes the prison, joined Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin of Illinois in sending a joint letter April 16 to Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal and Office of Personnel Management Acting Director Kathleen McGettigan asking for Thomson employees to receive the retention bonuses and also be moved into the higher paying Chicago pay locality, the Quad City Times reported.
The staffing situation is similarly dire at FCI Mendota, where officer staffing levels are 30 to 40 percent below the level needed to safely manage inmates. Compounding the problem, hundreds of federal inmates are being transferred to FCI Mendota from a private-sector prison in Texas that is closing – an action that will exacerbate already critical staffing shortages. In addition, there’s little incentive to invest in adequate staffing and resources, as prison wardens receive executive bonuses for failing to spend allocated funds each year.
LP McGlothin organized a protest outside FCI Mendota on May 17 to draw attention to the severe understaffing, which is endangering workers’ lives. The local ABC affiliate in Fresno, Calif., reported on the rally for a televised segment that included interviews with McGlothin and Mendota Mayor Rolando Castro, who appeared at the rally to lend his support.
“Our tax money is in that facility and I want to make sure our employees are safe,” the mayor said.