Travel costs for the Orlando conference were estimated at approximately $153,000, according to BOP.

Travel costs for the Orlando conference were estimated at approximately $153,000, according to BOP.

Bureau of Prisons Conference Spending Sparks Outrage During Budget Cuts, Staff Shortage

Union says sending 60 employees to Orlando less than two weeks before a government shutdown deadline was a poor use of resources.

As 60 Bureau of Prisons employees were returning from an American Correctional Association conference in Orlando, the union representing the agency’s 38,000 workers complained this week that such travel is a poor use of funds at a time of staff cutbacks and a stalled federal budget.

“After the holidays it sends a bad message to our staff actually operating the prisons doing more with less,” Eric Young, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ Council of Prison Locals, told Government Executive. “This would not be an issue if we weren’t under a continuing resolution” while Congress struggles to agree on a budget. “We’re told to operate only on things of necessity that are mission-critical,” he said, quoting past memos from wardens telling employees to “limit all travels, particularly to conferences.”

This year’s delegation of 60 is triple the number in a prior years, Young added, invoking the scandal that erupted in 2012 when the General Services Administration spent more than $800,000 on a lavish training conference in Las Vegas.

But the conference attended by BOP employees came “when we’re only 10 days from facing a government shutdown” and when the bureau has been saving money through “augmentation,” Young said, a practice he described as avoiding paying overtime by reassigning cooks or secretaries to be temporary corrections officers.

The Trump Justice Department, the union argued, is threatening to cut thousands of bureau positions, close regional offices and cut money for half-way houses.

Young estimated that BOP spent $120,000 to send the employees to the conference (60 attendees multiplied by an estimated $2,000 in travel and lodging costs; BOP's estimate is higher).  “It may not seem like a lot of money, but it could fund 400 shifts of overtime,” he said. “It’s inexcusable,” he said. The bureau director “should be setting a standard of excellence and use better discretion” rather than sending wardens “to go rub elbows with an organization” that is an extension of the Bureau of Prisons. 

The American Correctional Association’s annual winter conference features “hundreds of workshops, meetings and events, that allow attendees to educate themselves and network,” its website says (the association spokesman was traveling and did not respond to Government Executive inquiries).

The site continues: “Attendees can work towards professional certification and will learn information that will help them in their daily work. During each conference, the Commission on Accreditation holds panel hearings and awards accreditation to various correctional facilities. The conference also features an expansive exhibit hall where attendees can interact with hundreds of companies in the correctional industry. No other conferences in the world offer the variety of opportunities for people in the corrections profession to learn, grow and network with their peers.”

At this week’s event Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein spoke in praise of both the bureau and the association. “Attorney General Sessions and I understand and appreciate the difficulties you face and the sacrifices you make,” he said. “It is reassuring for law enforcement officers and their families to know that the Department of Justice has their back in these challenging times.”

The Bureau of Prisons confirmed to Government Executive that 60 employees attended the conference. In an emailed statement, the bureau added:

As they have for several years, BOP leaders are attending for important professional development goals that will assist them in carrying out the mission of the bureau and to attend to matters related to accreditation of federal prisons. Travel costs are estimated at approximately $153,000. The event was combined with BOP’s quarterly executive staff meeting, which will save money by precluding the need for a separate meeting. The event was also attended by representatives from state departments of corrections from most of the 50 states, as well as other countries. The ACA, not the BOP, selects the venue.