Incidents at a Federal Prison in Texas Have Sparked Broader Concerns About BOP Staffing Levels
Lawmakers would like to see staffing and pay issues addressed.
A second incident at a high security Texas federal prison facility this year has prompted concerns from lawmakers and union officials about staffing at this location and the prisons agency overall.
On Sunday morning, Bureau of Prisons staff responded to an altercation between two inmates at a penitentiary that is part of a federal corrections complex in Beaumont, Texas. One inmate was transferred to a hospital after he was pronounced dead and a second was treated for minor injuries at the institution, the agency said. This follows a separate incident at Beaumont in January, which precipitated a national lockdown of BOP’s institutions.
Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, a member of the BOP Reform Caucus representing the district where the Beaumont facility is located, sent a letter to Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal on Monday about the incident and related concerns.
“These deadly alterations between inmates threaten everyone in the room––inmates and correctional officers alike––and heighten already dangerous working conditions,” Weber wrote in his letter on Monday. “The staff at Federal Correctional Complex Beaumont are overworked, underpaid, and the BOP is not providing the resources necessary to create a safe environment.”
While legislation Weber introduced in the fall is designed to remedy the pay situation for correctional officers, the bureau itself must address other issues, he said. Particularly, “I have been informed by the [correctional officers] at [U.S. Penitentiary] Beaumont that BOP has used the emergency recall system several times to fill vacant posts,” he said, adding that speaks to the “chronic understaffing” at this facility and others around the country.
“The Bureau of Prisons responds directly to members of Congress,” Randilee Giamusso, BOP spokesperson, told Government Executive on Wednesday when asked about the letter. “Out of respect and deference to members, we do not share our congressional correspondence with [the] media.”
During a House hearing in February, Carvajal testified that a “common criticism is that we are understaffed,” but it's really a handful of facilities that are hard to staff, including the Beaumont one. He shared numbers on the staffing levels, which union members and lawmakers have disputed.
Shane Fausey, president of the Council of Prison Locals, a division of the American Federation of Government Employees, told Government Executive on Wednesday that he couldn’t divulge details of the recent incident at Beaumont, but generally speaking, “It’s no secret that the Bureau of Prisons is in a staffing crisis like we’ve never seen.” This was a major topic of discussion at a meeting on April 28 with union, agency and other officials, he said.
For Beaumont, one of the most secure BOP facilities, “their staffing numbers are abysmal and through our experience any time, statistically, you reduce the amount of officers to inmates or you reduce the supervision, reportable incidents in prison violence, contraband, attacks on employees, all increase exceptionally in the other direction,” Fausey said.
He thanked the Justice Department for the proposed 1,300 additional BOP positions in President Biden’s fiscal 2023 budget request, but said, “We can’t wait until 2023 for help.”
Parker Strong, AFGE local 1010 president, told Government Executive he believes the incident this past Sunday is a direct result of the staffing crunch.
“[Beaumont has] had minor instances, fights on the yard, where then they’d lock it down for a little bit,” he said. “And they’d come up, have another incident and then lock it down. And it’s been going on like that since that national lockdown was lifted.”
With “the decision to place a particular facility on ‘lockdown’ status, wardens may establish controls or implement temporary security measures to ensure the good order and security of their institution, as well as ensure the safety of the staff and inmates,” Donald Murphy, BOP spokesperson, told Government Executive. “In securing their facility, it is always the hope this security measure will be short-lived, and the facility returned to normal operations as quickly as possible.”
Rep. Fred Keller, R-Pa., chair of the BOP Reform Caucus, led the meeting on April 28 between caucus members as well as representatives from the prisons bureau union, the agency and the Government Accountability Office to discuss improvements. Keller told Government Executive in an interview last week after the meeting that “much of it related to staffing.”
He said he was glad GAO officials were there to speak about the office's findings, such as a February 2021 report that found the bureau should develop more reliable and consistent methods of using data to help with hiring and retention and to improve employee well-being. Of the seven recommendations GAO made in that report six are still open.
However, Keller said he didn’t think there was an urgency from BOP to address the action items during the meeting.
“The BOP is committed to ensuring appropriate staffing levels to maintain the safety and security of staff and inmates across all institutions,” Murphy said when Government Executive asked about this. “Currently, overall, we are operating at a staffing level of over 89%. Unfortunately, due to a number of factors, such as cost of living, some facilities are more challenging to staff. Addressing staffing concerns at those facilities is a top priority at BOP, and we are actively seeking to fill vacant positions with a particular focus on correctional officer vacancies by offering a wide range of employment incentives to attract and retain staff.”
The current BOP director, Carvajal, announced in January he would be retiring, but would stay until a successor is named. It is unclear when that will happen.
“I’m hoping the new director, whoever he or she may be, comes in and understands that some of the decisions that need to be made aren’t necessarily in line with the bureau's central office,” located in Washington, D.C, but rather the facilities, employees and inmates, said Fausey, who entered his 30th year of service at BOP this year.
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