Like many other federal prisons, the corrections complex in Florence, Colo., is undergoing a staffing crisis, with head counts on some guard shifts so low that teachers, case managers, counselors, maintenance workers, and even secretaries 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 most secure federal 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 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 is that more of a problem than at the chronically troubled Bureau of Prisons, with 60,000 inmates at 122 prisons and camps — employing a workforce of 34,000 who often earn less than state and county corrections workers, reports the New York Times.
Union officials contend that some recent incidents of inmate-on-inmate violence might have been prevented with higher staffing levels. The depleted workforce, they say, has affected attacks on staff members, including a 2021 incident when a guard at a Florida prison responsible for monitoring more than 100 inmates 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, forcing supervisors to lean harder on the employees remaining. Inmates often are 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, Cal. “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. Still, corrections officers who form the backbone of the system are departing for neighboring local law enforcement agencies or sliding over to better positions at other federal agencies.