Nurses, cooks enlisted as guards
Prison officer shortage puts staffers at risk
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.”
Kristan Morgan, 30, a nurse practitioner, was assigned to prison guard duty in Tallahassee. COLIN