Wednesday, February 14, 2018

As federal prisons run low on guards, nurses and cooks are filling in

When Kristan Morgan joined the U.S. Bureau of Prisons three years ago, the 30-year-old nurse expected to spend her days caring for the chronically sick and injured inside the nation's largest correctional system.
What she didn't expect: Being abruptly plucked from the busy medical unit in Tallahassee to pull guard duty in cell blocks — including a wing for solitary confinement.  
"We get a radio and set of keys, and we don't know which keys fit which doors," said Morgan, who often reports to guard duty in scrubs and running shoes because there are no extra officer uniforms.
Hundreds of secretaries, teachers, counselors, cooks and medical staffers were tapped last year to fill guard posts across the Bureau of Prisons because of acute officer shortages and overtime limits, according to prison records reviewed by USA TODAY and staff interviews.
The moves were made despite repeated warnings that the assignments placed unprepared employees at risk. And the practice has continued for years even though the agency has been rebuked by Congress and federal labor arbitrators.
"It puts inmate safety at risk and our own security at risk. When we play officer, we are not equipped," said Morgan, a local union official. "We are not familiar with the housing units. The inmates know exactly who we are and what our limitations are."
Still, Morgan continued, "I've been ordered to do it. I have no choice."
Morgan's extraordinary account also is an alarmingly common one.
As recently as July, a House panel directed the agency to “curtail its over-reliance” on the extraordinary deployments known as augmentation, once reserved only for emergency operations.
Instead, officials said, the practice has become commonplace at some institutions where even some plumbers, electrical workers, budget analysts and commissary staffers have been patrolling prison yards and filling officer vacancies in maximum-security units.
"While BOP reports that there is a higher incidences of serious assaults by inmates on staff at high and medium security institutions than at the lower security facilities, to meet staffing needs the BOP still routinely uses a process called augmentation whereby a non-custody employee is assigned custody responsibilities," a Senate Appropriations Committee report concluded in July. 
The Bureau of Prisons, in response to written questions, did not dispute the large numbers of civilians drafted for guard duty. Prison officials have contended that all employees are regarded as "correctional workers first." Indeed, all staffers are provided basic officer training as a condition of employment, but few civilians have been required to put that training into practice before they are tapped to plug security gaps.

 

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