Union boss: Bureau of Prisons faces dangerous cash crunch

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The Bureau of Prisons has partially paused onboarding new employees due to budget problems, according to an email from a top union official obtained by POLITICO.

On June 18, Shane Fausey, the national president of the Council of Prison Locals 33 and a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) lock and security specialist, sent an email to other union leaders that described challenges the Bureau faces. His council, part of the AFL-CIO, represents more than 30,000 workers in federal prisons. Nearly 38,000 people work for BOP, according to its website. In the email, Fausey wrote that the Bureau faces a budgetary shortfall “that will continue to impact the entire agency and all of us.”

“The hard reality requires hard decisions and our employees should not be the only ones to bear the consequences,” he added.

Fausey wrote that because of the Bureau’s financial problems, “all new firm offers” must have a start date on or after Oct. 1, 2021. He wrote that the policy has a few exceptions, including for the most understaffed prisons. A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons confirmed the development to POLITICO. “New hire firm offers issued after June 9, 2021, will start after October 1, 2021,” the spokesperson emailed. “However, we continue to on-board new hire firm offers at a couple of facilities as well as those for First Step Act (FSA) positions.”

The news comes as the Bureau faces bruising watchdog reports and the coronavirus pandemic. A Justice Department Inspector General report released last year found that the Bureau spent more than $300 million on overtime pay in 2019 because of staff shortages, as USA Today detailed.

But while Fausey described BOP’s predicament in grave terms, a Bureau spokesperson gave a rosy description of the agency’s staffing situation.

“The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) recently embarked on an unprecedented hiring initiative to bring on 1,000 new employees within 120 days,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “As a result of this initiative, we are projected to bring over 1,800 new BOP employees. The Hiring Initiative has been a huge success in increasing our staffing levels and number of correctional officers.”

The statement also said the agency is using social media and job fairs to find possible new hires and has resumed internal promotions.

The spokesperson also said the Bureau “will be solvent in FY 2021. There has been a readjustment in the budget due to the success of the hiring initiative.”

Reached for comment on his email, Fausey reiterated that the situation at the Bureau is dire.

"A clear and dangerous staffing crisis in the Bureau of Prisons, as explicitly outlined in a number of OIG reports and a recent scathing report by the GAO, has pushed this agency beyond its limits,” he said in a statement provided to POLITICO. “Our employees and officers continue to endure unrelenting overtime and reassignments as the budgetary shortfall is preventing the hiring of much needed Correctional Officers. We implore the Attorney General and the Department of Justice to release emergency funding to hire 4,000 new Correctional Officers in the Bureau of Prisons through the end of the fiscal year. Future budgetary considerations by the DOJ, the Administration, and Congress, must be made to consider the human consequences of inadequate funding.”

This comes as the Bureau faces scrutiny from outside watchdogs. The Justice Department’s Inspector General recently sent a memo to the head of the Bureau detailing security concerns about recent escapes of inmates, including one instance where guards did not detect the escape of four inmates in Texas for 12 hours. And the Government Accountability Office released a report in February of this year noting that questions persist about “the Bureau’s ability to fully staff its facilities, the effects of staffing shortfalls, and the mental health of corrections staff.”

DOJ’s Inspector General also has pointed to staffing problems that have hampered the Bureau’s ability to combat the coronavirus pandemic. During an outbreak at one prison, some staff worked for 40 hours straight because of staff absences. Another prison was only operating with 80 percent of its authorized medical staff as the pandemic began, according to the inspector general.

Staffing challenges have generated concerns among prison officials. Aaron McGlothin, the Local 1237 union president at Mendota federal prison in California, said staff shortages can put inmates and employees in danger.

“It puts every one of the hardworking staff at risk and it could cost somebody their life,” he told POLITICO.

McGlothin argued that BOP leadership cares more about cost-cutting than worker safety. “Honestly they don’t give a shit,” he said. “Our bureau director, all he cares about is the bottom line and making sure the checkbook balances out.”

The AP reported on Wednesday that Biden administration officials are discussing whether to remove the Bureau’s director, Michael Carvajal, who has faced withering criticism of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 240 people inside federal prisons have died from Covid-19 during the outbreak. Meanwhile, according to the Brennan Center, federal prison wardens blocked almost all requests for the compassionate release of inmates at particularly high risk to the virus.

“There has to be meaningful accountability for what’s happened,” the Brennan Center’s Andrew Cohen wrote.

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