Nurses, cooks en­listed as guards

Pri­son of­fi­cer short­age puts staffers at risk

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Kevin John­son

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 said, “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 over­re­liance” on de­ploy­ments known as aug­men­ta­tion, once re­served only for emer­gency op­er­a­tions. In­stead, of­fi­cials said, the prac­tice has be­come com­mon­place at some in­sti­tu­tions where even plumbers, elec­tri­cal work­ers, bud­get an­a­lysts and com­mis­sary staffers have been pa­trolling pri­son yards and fill­ing of­fi­cer vacancies in max­i­mum-se­cu­rity units.

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

“When we play of­fi­cer, we are not equipped.”

Kris­tan Mor­gan, a nurse prac­ti­tioner

they are tapped to plug se­cu­rity gaps.

“We con­tinue to hire staff at in­sti­tu­tions around the coun­try as needed,” the agency said in a state­ment.

Nearly two years ago, USA TO­DAY re­ported that nurses, phys­i­cal ther­a­pists and other med­i­cal staffers had been pressed into se­cu­rity du­ties, rais­ing con­cerns about their safety. The re­port was fol­lowed by a memo from then-act­ing di­rec­tor Thomas Kane urg­ing re­straint in autho­riz­ing such de­ploy­ments, di­rect­ing war­dens to use it “only as a last re­sort.”

Yet the prac­tice has only con­tin­ued — and even ac­cel­er­ated — at some short­staffed in­sti­tu­tions.

“Cur­rent staffing lev­els at ... Hazel­ton have made it dif­fi­cult to fill manda­tory posts on a reg­u­lar ba­sis with­out re­ly­ing on aug­men­ta­tion,” War­den Joe Coak­ley said in a memo Aug. 1, 2016.

There also are grow­ing con­cerns that the level of risk to staffers and in­mates alike will only in­crease as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion cuts about 6,000 po­si­tions from its force — about a 14% re­duc­tion sys­temwide. The cuts in­clude about 1,800 of­fi­cer po­si­tions.

Though the pris­ons bureau said the ma­jor­ity of the po­si­tions be­ing elim­i­nated are va­cant, the moves — in­clud­ing plans to trans­fer an undis­closed num­ber of in­mates to pri­vate con­tract pris­ons — have roiled the ranks where some work sched­ules vary from day to day.

A sam­pling of pri­son work ros­ters at the Cole­man, Fla., com­plex ob­tained by USA TO­DAY showed that up to 36 civil­ian staffers were as­signed to guard duty on any given day last year. Their num­bers in­cluded teach­ers, laun­dry work­ers, fi­nan­cial man­agers and a “re­li­gious ser­vice” staffer.

At the fed­eral pri­son com­plex in Vic­torville, Calif., John Kostel­nik, chief of the lo­cal pri­son work­ers union, said up to 60 civil­ian staffers a day have been as­signed to of­fi­cer posts.

“We have peo­ple who have lit­er­ally never done this be­fore,” he said. “It’s quite scary. The whole sys­tem of (civil­ian re­as­sign­ments) is a mess.”

HACKLEY FOR USA TO­DAY

Kris­tan Mor­gan, 30, a nurse prac­ti­tioner, was as­signed to pri­son guard duty in Tallahassee. COLIN

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