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Federal Prison Staffing Shortages Delay First Step Act Releases

Chronic staffing shortages in federal prisons and a lack of training are impeding the implementation of a Trump-era law designed to give nonviolent inmates the opportunity for early release, locking some up longer and contributing to eroding morale, union leaders and rank-and-file staff members tell NBC News.

Outgoing Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal was grilled this week by senators at a contentious hearing at which employee whistleblowers described unsanitary and unsafe conditions at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta and sexual abuse by staff members at a women's prison in California, among other allegations of misconduct.

Staff members at some large prisons said carrying out the First Step Act, sign in 2018 by then-President Trump, has been taxing, if not impossible.

"It's not going at all," Joe Rojas, literacy coordinator at the Coleman Federal Corrections Complex in Florida, said of the First Step Act's implementation.

"I'm the education department, and we're never open, and if we are, it's barely," said Rojas, who is the president of the American Federation of Government Employees' Local 506 at Coleman.

Under the First Step Act, inmates are scored in an algorithm that determines whether they are eligible for early release based on whether they are at "minimum" or "low" risk of re-offending and whether they were convicted of certain serious crimes, including violent offenses.

Qualifying inmates must participate in approved prison and work programs geared toward education and rehabilitation and accrue time credits every month. Once the credits equal the time left on an inmate's sentence, the inmate can be transferred into "pre-release custody," such as a halfway house or home confinement. Some may also be eligible for like probation.

The law is meant to reduce recidivism, ease the federal prison population and address racial disparities stemming from stiff drug-related sentences.

In January, the Justice Department published a final rule related to the time credit program in an effort to ensure inmates aren't being left behind and their hours are being properly counted.

Prisoner advocacy groups, affected inmates and former federal prison officials have expressed skepticism, saying there are thousands of inmates whose time credits aren't getting applied and that, in some cases, the inmates aren't released as early as they should be.

Bureau officials say they have worked to identify inmates who qualify for early release and "have no data which suggests inmates had their release dates delayed."

Rojas said employees like him who should be operating programs that can help inmates earn time credits aren't able to do so because they're being diverted to other correctional officer-type duties during the staffing shortage — a practice known as augmentation.

"Most of us are augmented," Rojas said. "There's no programming. If there's no programming, you can't do the First Step Act. .. "It really is dire. I've seen the good, the bad, and now we're in the ugly."


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