WASHINGTON – The interagency agreement to send more than 1,600 detainees to five federal prisons is jeopardizing the lives of correctional officers, detainees, inmates, and surrounding communities according to the union representing workers in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BoP).
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. There are also increased staffing shortages that decrease the safety of inmates, detainees, and officers alike.
“The Federal Bureau of Prisons has already been under a huge strain since President Trump took office, following the ill-advised hiring freeze, budget cuts, and staffing reductions. Now, the men and women who safeguard these prisons and allow our communities to know peace are being exposed to even greater dangers without any real support,” said American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals President Eric Young.
“These actions are not only hazardous to those working behind the prison walls, but they also increase the risk to public health through the spread of communicable diseases and the increased potential for violent inmates to escape,” said Young.
The sudden decision by the administration to house immigration detainees in the already short-staffed federal prison system – which had 6,000 open positions cut in January – was poorly executed.
Administration officials gave local correctional officers and staff 24-48 hours’ notice that they would be responsible for 1,600 detainees – spread across five separate facilities – on top of their existing compliment of inmates. This action resulted in federal inmates 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 there was no coherent plan in place to ensure the safety or security of the prison or the surrounding community.
At Federal Correctional Complex, Victorville, 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.’ That meant we brought in detainees with skin lesions and rashes without proper screening and medical equipment,” he added.
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 have not been provided masks to prevent the spread of TB. The protective equipment that was provided was either expired or not certified for that use.
“We have at least one employee here who is pregnant,” said Kostelnik, “and others who could be as well. 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 decreased morale due to staffing shortages and augmentation. Now, “morale has sunk to an all-time low,” said Kostelnik.
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 more than ready to keep advocating for the health and safety of officers, detainees, and the surrounding communities.
“It’s no secret that correctional officers have been hamstrung by the agency for years, dating back to 2005,” said 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,” Young added. “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?”