A guard guides a vehicle along the fenceline around the federal correctional institution in Englewood, Colo.

A guard guides a vehicle along the fenceline around the federal correctional institution in Englewood, Colo. David Zalubowski / AP

Federal Prison Employees Fear Staff Shortages and Mass Reassignments as COVID-19 Cases Spike

"The seams are going to burst," one employee said

Federal prisons around the country are increasingly relying on teachers, librarians and even nurses to conduct law enforcement duties as COVID-19 spikes exacerbate existing staffing shortages, leading employees to fear for their safety or head for the exits. 

The Bureau of Prisons, the Justice Department component that manages 122 facilities nationwide, has expanded its use of a practice called “augmentation” during the novel coronavirus pandemic, in which employees typically assigned to other jobs are forced into correctional officer roles. Bureau workers have said for years the initiative sacrifices safety and key rehabilitation initiatives typically provided to federal inmates, but they said management has accelerated it to unprecedented levels under the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s augmentation on steroids,” said Talmadge Coleman, a staffer at Federal Correctional Institution Edgefield in South Carolina. 

As employees are pulled away from duties like conducting case work, providing facility maintenance or offering psychological services, employees said, inmates tend to get more restless and prone to disruptions. They are also deprived of programs specifically designed to prepare them for post-prison life and reduce recidivism. 

“You can never accomplish your tasks, your primary goal of rehabilitation and meeting deadlines of GEDs and other vocational programs,” said Kareen Troitino, a teacher at FCI Miami who has been primarily augmented to correctional officer duty since March. 

Employees blamed a combination of existing staffing shortages, workers getting sick or quarantining due to COVID-19 and an unwillingness by management to spend on overtime as responsible for the rising use of the reassignments. Troitino said his facility had gone on a hiring spree, bringing on more than 40 officers this year. Still, his Miami facility spent March through September on full augmentation, meaning education, construction and religious services were all shut down. Some activities have slowly resumed, but augmentation continues. Joe Rojas, who works at FCI Coleman in Florida, said his facility has never fully recovered from a bureau-wide hiring freeze instituted early in the Trump administration and fallout from the 35-day shutdown that began in 2018. 

Cases of the novel coronavirus are also spiking among bureau staff, increasing by more than 100% since just Nov. 3. More than 3,200 employees, or nearly one-in-10, have tested positive for COVID-19. More than 40% of the staff cases are currently active. Some employees cited a recent decision to reinstate social visits for inmates as accelerating the spread among the workforce, as inmates are separated from visitors by plexiglass but staffers have to interact with them directly. 

“If not for COVID, we would still have augmentation but it wouldn’t be as crazy,” said Rojas. “It’s already a dangerous workplace with COVID and it’s made worse by understaffing.” 

Justin Long, a bureau spokesman, said BOP has taken all steps necessary to protect its workers and has learned throughout the process. He detailed a series of decisions, ranging from providing equipment to sanitizing facilities and limiting inmate movement, that he said have helped limit outbreaks within prisons. Long also defended augmentation by noting all staff are trained as correctional officers, though he acknowledged the negative impacts on inmates and employees alike.

"We remain deeply concerned for the health and welfare of our staff and their families as well as the inmates entrusted to our care and the communities we live and work in," Long said. "It is our highest priority to continue to do everything we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities."

Bureau Director Michael Carvajal is scheduled to testify before a House Judiciary subcommittee on Wednesday. 

While the bureau insisted augmentation is standard practice, employees said the negative consequences are severe. Typically, they noted, those serving as teachers, plumbers or in other capacities can be called upon when the alarm sounds due to a skirmish or disturbance in the prison. With augmentation, they said, there is no one left to respond. 

Aaron McGlothin, an employee at FCI Mendota in California, said his facility just began ramping up augmentation recently. He blamed management for agreeing to bring in hundreds of inmates in the custody of the U.S. Marshal Service, for which it did not have the staff to accommodate. A spokesman countered the bureau has no authority to reject individuals detained by USMS. 

“We have nurses working in a housing unit,” McGlothin said. “How do you justify reassigning a nurse?” 

He and other bureau employees said the augmented staff lament their temporary duties, as their supervisors still expect them to complete their normal responsibilities. Like Troitino missing deadlines to help inmates with education attainment, case workers fall behind on their assignments for individual inmates. Critical repair work is neglected. 

In addition to the visitor policies, workers said the bureau has failed to institute policies to protect them from the pandemic. After initially telling employees they were on their own for personal protective equipment, the bureau eventually opted to use UNICOR—the government-owned corporation that assigns manufacturing tasks to federal inmates—to make cotton masks for employees. They were issued the masks with a memorandum that stated there was no guarantee the product was “effective against biohazards, including against contracting viral and bacterial illnesses.” Most workers opted to purchase their own equipment, employees said. The bureau is one of five federal agencies that is slated to receive its own distribution of COVID-19 vaccine from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for disbursement to staff and inmates. 

McGlothin said he has noticed the cases in Mendota “are starting to go up big time.” He is currently home on quarantine due to a potential exposure to a colleague who since tested positive, the second time he has been sent home for that reason this month. Some employees, meanwhile, are opting not to come back at all. 

“People are leaving and retiring due to COVID,” said Coleman, the staffer in South Carolina.

Rojas said he has seen the same at his facility and others he represents through his union. 

“People didn’t want to come back to work,” he said. “They retired.” 

Several employees said they expect that attrition to only accelerate in the coming weeks and months. Rojas, who is himself eligible to retire, said he and many others have stuck around in part due to a retention bonus the bureau offered to veteran workers in recent years. That incentive is disappearing next year, he said. Long said the bureau is providing incentives "where appropriate" and taking other steps to boost recruiting. He noted the agency has hired 3,400 employees in 2020, a sharp uptick over recent years.

Employees suggested staff are increasingly burning out as use of augmentation and COVID-19 cases increase, and are nervously watching Congress 10 days out from a potential government shutdown. Already some of the prisons in the Southeast, Rojas said, are operating at 70% or less of their expected workforce level. 

“You can’t run a prison like that. The seams are going to burst,” he said. “I’m afraid.”