WASHINGTON – Leaders from the American Federation of Government Employees representing federal correctional officers and staff in the Western U.S. are calling for the Bureau of Prisons to take immediate steps to address dangerous working conditions inside federal prisons stemming from staffing shortfalls and the rapidly spreading coronavirus.
“We are facing an emergency situation on several fronts, and it’s literally endangering the lives of our staff and the inmates themselves,” AFGE Council of Prison Locals Western Regional Vice President John Kostelnik said. “Yet so far, our demands for the agency to begin hiring staff and to ensure we have the proper health and safety protections from the coronavirus are falling on deaf ears.”
Union leaders from the council and 15 federal prisons across the western U.S. sent a letter to BOP Regional Director Melissa Rios in December, calling for the agency to address major staffing shortages that have resulted in correctional officers working vast amounts of mandatory overtime and non-officer employees including medical staff and counselors being assigned to work as correctional officers under a process called augmentation.
Specifically, AFGE leaders are calling for BOP to submit a request to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management for approval to pay a 25% retention bonus to existing officers and staff and for BOP to end an agency-wide hiring freeze that was imposed in June 2021 over the union’s objections.
“The hiring freeze has turned the staffing crisis into an emergency,” union leaders wrote in the letter. “Our staff are being stretched thin and worked to the breaking point. The staff morale and welfare is at an all-time low.”
To date, union officials have not received a response to the letter.
The existing staffing shortages have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is spreading at an alarming rate and resulting in both staff and inmates contracting the virus. On Jan. 12, the entire BOP was elevated to the highest COVID-19 operational level, Level 3, indicating sustained increases in the spread of the virus.
The agency has not provided union leaders with any information on the amount of available personal protective equipment (PPE) or how to keep officers and inmates safe, Kostelnik said.
BOP’s western region includes 20 correctional facilities in 11 states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.