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Federal Prisons Are Losing Staff. The Bureau’s Director Would Like to Fix That By October

Steps to boost hiring will include a $1,000 recruitment incentive.  

The head of the federal prisons agency said in a recent internal memo that although the agency has had “tremendous” staffing increases, overall nationwide staffing levels are “trending downward” and he would like to reverse that in the coming months.  

Michael Carvajal, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, sent a memo on June 2 to assistant directors, regional directors and chief executive officers on incentives to increase staffing at the agency. Union officials and lawmakers have been raising concerns for a while now that the agency is chronically understaffed. 

“In fiscal year 2021, the Bureau of Prisons made tremendous staffing gains; however, staffing levels are currently trending downward nationwide,” Carvajal wrote in the memo obtained by Government Executive. “To reverse this pattern, we must make a concerted effort to refocus our efforts on staffing all locations to their funded level, with a focus on external hiring. The bureau-wide overall funded staffing level is 93%, and our goal is to reach that level by September 30, 2022,” which is the end of the fiscal year. The memo does not give any staffing numbers. 

Carvajal’s line that “staffing levels are currently trending downward nationwide” differs from what he told Congress three months ago.

It’s a “common criticism” that the agency is understaffed, Carvajal testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security panel on February 3. “The narrative is routinely misrepresented without reference to the factual data,” he said. There were about 1,100 correctional officer vacancies and seven of the bureau’s 121 locations accounted for 40% of the vacancies, he told lawmakers. 

“Last calendar year we hired over 3,000 staff and, at one point, advance hired 1,000 staff above our funding levels,” the director said in his testimony. “We have proven that we can hire employees and although hiring is not an issue at the majority of our locations, we are routinely outbid by competing state and local corrections or law enforcement agencies who pay a higher wage.” Therefore, he said the bureau is working with the Justice Department on how it can use additional incentives to make its hiring more competitive. 

Government Executive asked BOP to explain the difference in the statements. 

“In the months following the director's February 2022 testimony, the Bureau of Prisons experienced a decline in staffing which necessitates a national response, as outlined in the June 2, 2022, Initiative to Increase Staffing memorandum,” said Randilee Giamusso, BOP spokesperson. “As indicated in the Initiative to Increase Staffing memorandum, the BOP is taking concrete steps to increase staffing.” 

This includes Carvajal directing institutions to host hiring events and submit a hiring plan no later than June 8 as well as staff already-funded positions. 

Next, “staff who have separated from the bureau have identified lack of training and lack of connection to the institution as reasons for their leaving the bureau within the first few years of service,” he wrote. “We must take decisive actions to address this issue in order to maintain staffing levels.” 

For the next 90 days there will be a $1,000 recruitment incentive (up to $500,000 in total) for current staff members who refer new applicants who are hired, said Carvajal. Regional and assistant directors and wardens must make sure that staff know about this, he added. 

This is not the first time the agency has launched recruitment initiatives or incentives, as shown by announcements from April and October.  

Carvajal announced in January he would be retiring, but would stay until a successor is named. 

Shane Fausey, national president of the Council of Prison Locals, said BOP “has been in a staffing crisis for years, has broken two records in December (most retirements in a month, and most in a year), and eerily our numbers nationwide have continued to decline.” 

The memo from Carvajal “is a direct response to our concerns relayed to him last week” and “addresses our concerns to halt, and hopefully reverse this downward trend,” Fausey continued. “Our officers and employees are being pushed beyond the brink, and we cannot wait until the next director arrives to address this crisis.”

If the Justice Department and Biden administration overall want “to see this agency succeed, then by executive action and/or immediate intervention by the attorney general [there must be a request] for emergency funding to hire all positions in the BOP to 100% as well as address the inadequate pay bands and deteriorating working conditions causing the mass exodus from this agency,” said Fausey. 

Joe Rojas, president of Local 506, which represents employees at the Federal Correctional Complex Coleman, located in Sumter County, Florida, said the downward trend in staffing is something union officials have been saying for years and noted “the memo contradicts [Carvajal’s] statement to Congress on staffing.” Rojas, who has been with the agency for almost three decades, said “this is the worst leadership and culture I have witnessed.”