Secretaries, Teachers Guarding Violent Felons In Federal Prisons. That Should Save Money!
In a normal news world, this would be huge news: Thanks to the Trump administration's hiring freeze, federal prisons are becoming chronically understaffed. It's saving the government a bit of money, so we can afford some big fats tax cuts for rich fuckwads, but there just might be a small downside, as a New York Times investigation found. Turns out that with correctional officers in short supply, federal prisons are burning out the staff they have, and often relying on staff like clerks, teachers, and medical staff to fill in for correctional officers on the units. It's all fun and games until someone gets mauled, huh?
You see, anyone who has a full-time prison job with the Bureau of Prisons is supposed to be able to be brought in for temporary duty guarding prisoners, like in case of an emergency, but with vacant positions going unfilled -- and those empty positions being eliminated altogether -- it's becoming more and more common for non-guards to be pressed into duty as if they were actual guards. So now federal prisons are operating as if every day were an emergency, with teachers and office staff filling in on units that have already been cut back to minimal staffing. And while federal prison populations declined under Barack Obama, Jeff Sessions wants more aggressive mandatory sentences, and that's filling up the prisons again.
Oh, and here's a surprise: Thanks to the cutbacks, inmates know they're not being watched by full-time corrections officers, and are acting like it. Assaults by prisoners, on other prisoners and on staff, have increased 8 percent over last year.
"When you're an officer and in the units for eight hours a day, you get to know the inmates," said a teacher at a Florida prison who was not authorized to speak to the news media. "You can tell when a fight is about to happen. I don't have that background." The teacher added: "The inmates see this and they know we are outnumbered. They know we have people working in the units who don't have the slightest idea what to do."
The Bureau of Prisons didn't have any comment on the allegations in the story; the reporters talked to a lot of prison staff, but only a few -- those whose jobs are protected because they're union officials -- were willing to go on the record for the piece. If people are afraid to talk about what's going on in the prisons, then obviously there's no problem.
Support staff, who are really only supposed to be called in to guard prisoners in, again, emergencies, have only limited training compared to the pros, and the story notes that even staff who had previously worked as corrections officers are worried about all the cutbacks, because if something bad happens, there's not a hell of a lot of backup available:
"A big fear people have is, if I get assaulted, who is going to come help me?" said Serene Gregg, an employees' union official at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. A former correctional officer, she recently became a case manager, a job that involves providing counseling and serving as a liaison between inmates and the court system.
We suppose it may be a weird kind of compliment: Trump thinks teachers are capable of taking down school shooters, and now they're expected to help break up fights in prison yards. Shouldn't be long until they're asked to join the Space Force, too.
The short staffing is also allowing a lot more contraband into prisons. At the federal prison in Big Spring, Texas, the only prison reporters were allowed to tour (no, the warden would not allow an interview), contraband is way up, with outsiders just walking up to the double fence and throwing drugs or cell phones to prisoners:
Sometimes staff members find out only because the contraband has not cleared both fences and is marooned in between.
Prison workers fret most about cellphones, which are banned because they allow inmates to attempt crimes. Big Spring has issued bulletin after bulletin to workers about the growing presence of cellphones, which can fetch as much as $1,500 inside the prison, according to documents reviewed by The Times. One officer found a cellphone hidden at the bottom of a water jug; another found a charger concealed in a wall next to an inmate's bunk.
The number of confiscated phones went from just one in 2016 to 69 in 2017. So far this year, employees have seized 200, so you have to assume there's plenty more not being found. One counselor, Curtis Lloyd, told the Times, "Everyone heard about that first cellphone [...] Now it's like it's raining cellphones."
Oh, and when they're busy being intimidated by inmates ready to beat someone up for trying to take a phone away or search for drugs, the substitute staff aren't able to do their real jobs, so classes get cancelled, prisoners don't get medical care, and paperwork gets backed up. But at least there's plenty of overtime pay for the correctional officers who remain:
Some correctional officers, who generally work eight-hour shifts, said they had been instructed to stay for a second shift, sometimes with only a few minutes' notice. Some who refused were threatened with disciplinary action, including suspensions. In some instances, workers said, they got five or six hours of sleep before returning for another 16 hours of work.
Exhausted, some officers said the only way to avoid the demands was to call in sick. When that happens, some prisons require other workers to fill the gap.
Go read, as we like to say, the whole thing. It's very well-sourced, and in the old days when investigative reporting could really have an impact, this might have made Americans take a long hard look at prison policy.
Now, though, we may be lucky if we can simply keep Trump from enlisting migrant kids taken from their parents to fill in for the clerical staff who've been shifted to watching other migrant kids taken from their parents.
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