Michael Conroy / AP

Federal Bureau of Prisons Launches New Hiring Effort 

Staff recruitment and retention have been long-term challenges, despite a decrease in the inmate population. 

The Federal Bureau of Prisons recently launched an “unprecedented effort” to increase staffing at the agency, which has been an ongoing management challenge. 

Staff recruitment and retention difficulties have continued during the pandemic and despite the fact that the federal inmate population has decreased by 29% from 2013 to 2020, the Justice Department inspector general reported in November. 

“This unprecedented effort to increase the agency’s staffing not only enhances the safety and well-being of employees and inmates, but also provides rewarding careers in positions of leadership and mentorship, from corrections officers to educators,” BOP said in a press release on Wednesday. Last year, BOP hired nearly 4,000 new employees and “is poised to add thousands more this year through a network of activities including advertising campaigns, virtual interviews and new job incentives, such as student loan repayment, annual leave credit and competitive pay.” 

As a result, the agency “paused internal selections in order to devote 100% of the agency’s resources toward finding qualified candidates from outside the bureau,” for the next four months, BOP spokesperson Scott Taylor told Government Executive

According to the Justice IG, there was a 16% vacancy rate for correctional officers as of June 2020 (equaling 3,350 unfilled positions) and BOP employees worked 6.71 million overtime hours in fiscal 2019 (equivalent to 3,107 full-time positions) 

Shane Fausey, national president of the Council of Prison Locals C-33, a division of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in an address to members, shared with Government Executive, the “temporary moratorium on internal hiring and movement...will allow the bureau to refocus all of its assets on hiring new employees” as “I am sure that you, the employees in the cell blocks and housing units do not need me to remind you of our staffing shortages across the agency.” He previously told Government Executive that the staffing levels could have been a contributing factor to the high number of suicides among correctional officers in 2019.

Fausey added in the address, “our efforts to respond to COVID-19, national social unrest and basic operations within our prisons became a daily struggle.” Fausey said he hopes that BOP will be able to fill all of the empty positions, so it can end augmentation (in which non-custody employees are assigned to custody roles, such as those of correctional officers) and mandatory overtime. “This council will focus its efforts on helping increase our staffing complement across the entire agency,” he said.

The council will also “continue to work legislatively to increase our lagging pay bands,” which would give managers more flexibility to reward performance, “increase our cost of living arrangements and expand use of incentives to both enter our agency and retain the most tenured and experienced employees,” Fausey said. 

However, there is some skepticism about the new effort. 

In the short term, there will still be “severe shortages in staffing in all departments, excessive backlog of duties, continued augmentation even further putting the non-custody staff further behind in their duties,” Aaron McGlothin, a correctional officer and local union president in Mendota, California, told Government Executive. There could also be less programming for inmates and staff will be at greater “risk of assault by failing to provide the inmates with their rights under the ‘First Step Act’ and other needs.”

In the long-term, “effects will mirror the 2017 hiring freeze under President Trump,” which lasted 79 days and from which “we are still reeling,” he said. This change “will also hinder inmate releases, staff retention and [create] greater staff shortages across the board. This one will haunt us all for years to come.” 

Eric Meyer, a senior officer specialist and vice president of Local 1237 in Mendota, said “a lot of people are trying to move to smaller cities because of the pandemic, getting out of bigger cities and it’s pretty much holding everybody where they’re at.” This in combination with augmentation is “not helping either.” 

When asked about how President Biden directed the Justice Department on January 26 not to renew contracts with private prisons, Meyer said, “I could see us getting an influx of inmates and maybe that’s what they’re going for, trying to get more staff in, but it’s still hurting staff that are there now.” 

Last March, a bipartisan group of 47 senators wrote to the Office of Personnel Management asking about giving BOP direct hire authority for all facilities to fill vacancies more quickly (several were already granted the authority). 

Then-OPM acting director Michael Rigas noted in a response in April 2020 that the Justice Department requested such authority in October 2019. “To date, we are unconvinced that [it] is the best remedy to BOP's personnel shortages,” Rigas said. “Upon analysis, we determined that BOP's staffing challenges stem from a retention problem rather than a recruiting problem. We continue to believe that increasing retention incentives would be the most efficacious solution under the circumstances.” OPM will “continue to engage with BOP to reassess their staffing challenges and recruitment capacity.” 

Now in the Biden administration, “OPM is committed to working with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to meet hiring needs in support of its vitally important mission,” an OPM spokesperson said in a statement on Thursday. “We will continue to engage directly with BOP to identify strategies that can be used to address any challenges they may be facing.”