The Occupational Safety and Health Administration found “serious” problems at a Florida prison, prompting the first ever citation for BOP.
For the first time, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in late November issued a citation to a Bureau of Prisons facility for unsafe working conditions. The Miami low-security federal correctional institution must take steps to address OSHA’s recommendations by Jan. 15.
Government Executive obtained a copy of the notice from a correctional officer in Florida. OSHA issued the citation on Nov. 26, 2019, following an August 2, 2018, inspection where inspectors found “serious” violations of the federal regulation that requires agencies to foster a workplace free from conditions that could cause death or physical harm. A Labor Department spokesperson told Government Executive it is the first time OSHA has cited the Bureau of Prisons for such violations.
In the complaint, OSHA cited two examples of inmate violence at the institution. In May 2018, “an unescorted inmate with a history of exhibiting sexually aggressive disruptive behavior was in the lobby of the [Health Services Unit] for no reason when he sexually assaulted a pharmacist by grabbing her buttocks.” Then in July, “an argumentative prison inmate in the Special Housing Unit tried to assault a correctional officer through the shower cell where the door slot remained open.”
Nancy Ayers, bureau of prisons spokesperson, told Government Executive “the bureau continuously reviews and takes steps to address and mitigate the risks associated with disruptive inmates and takes very seriously any and all assaults and physical attacks against any persons including BOP staff, contractors and volunteers.”
Joe Rojas, the southeast regional vice president at the Council of Prison Locals, said such incidents cited by OSHA are not unusual in the prison system. He said low staffing numbers at facilities nationwide are the worst he’s seen in over 24 years working in the prison system. In recent years, overwhelmed correctional officers at various locations have begun taking their concerns directly to OSHA “because this had to be addressed,” Rojas said.
Under the law, OSHA may not fine another federal agency, but Rojas said the citation is “a big deal” because it “shows that what we’re saying is valid.”
“I’m glad to see that OSHA has stepped in,” said Brian Dawe, CEO of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network, a former state correctional officer and co-founder of the Massachusetts Correctional Officers Federated Union. He said prison employees can experience “mental damage” from dangerous workplace conditions, which he said accounts for the high suicide rate among correctional officers. “I have heard a lot of people wanting to do this,” Dawe said of correctional officers turning to OSHA. “But I’ve never seen an actual complaint come forward ... This is the first time I’ve ever seen a complaint issued like this.”
Among the “feasible and acceptable means of abatement” required by OSHA by Jan. 15 are:
- Consider installing barriers in the hallways and video surveillance in common areas in the health services unit.
- Create and implement a way to make sure only inmates who need medical services can enter the health services unit.
- Re-evaluate the body alarm system and give employees “clear written procedures” on how to use it.
- Revise procedures for inmate showers.
- Update the BOP Workplace Violence Prevention, Staff Program statement to “specifically address inmate-on-staff violence, worksite hazard analysis, hazard prevention, reporting incidents of inmate-on-staff violence, and training” and do annual reviews of the program.
- Make sure contract employees are trained to handle potentially violent situations.
- Create a process to flag inmates who were transferred from higher security facilities, have a history of gang violence and/or have displayed aggressive behavior to staff.
Given the extent and specificity of OSHA’s recommendations, Dawe said, “I can only assume there’s a lot more to these stories than we’re seeing.”