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September 18, 2021

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Consequences wrought by years of bad decisions now felt by prison staff

Counselors, cooks and other specialists who work in federal prisons are being pressed into service as guards due to a code-red staffing shortage in the penal system, the Associated Press revealed last week.

In a story that should serve as a wake-up call to national lawmakers to make prison reform and corrections funding a high priority, the AP reported that penitentiaries have been forced to adopt a number of workarounds and scheduling gyrations to cope with the staffing crisis. Fewer than 14,000 of the nearly 20,500 correctional officer positions are unfilled, leaving the guard corps depleted by about a third.

One response by prison administrators is to assign food service workers, counselors, teachers, nurses, etc., to watch prisoners on an as-needed basis. This is anything but ideal, even though everyone hired for these positions is trained as a corrections officer and is told up-front that they may have to perform guard duties.

But despite the training, pulling these workers away from their other duties means their regular work is going undone. Prisoners aren’t getting counseling, classes aren’t being held, health care isn’t being provided. Skimping on these services runs counter to the institutional mission of rehabilitating offenders.

This fill-in staffing is also hazardous. Staff members with little or no experience as guards obviously aren’t ideal alternatives for regular corrections officers, who, immersed in the cell blocks, gain an understanding of how to spot dangerous situations, how to respond to them and how to protect themselves.

Meanwhile, another method for dealing with the staffing shortage is simply to leave prisoners in their cells longer so that a full contingent of corrections officers isn’t needed to watch them. That’s what happened at a federal penitentiary in Texas, which began locking up inmates during weekends. Visiting hours have been eliminated there too, also due to staffing issues.

Needless to say, that’s not good for anyone. It’s inhumane to the prisoners and their loved ones, it breeds contempt among the inmates and it makes a tense environment even more volatile.

Elsewhere, corrections staff are being worked to the bone to make ends meet — the AP says officers are being asked to work as much as 60 hours of overtime per week. This also is toxic to the environment, no doubt causing burnout that is contributing to the staffing shortage while also leaving the officers fatigued, stressed and compromised in their ability to perform their duties at a high level.

The COVID-19 pandemic also took a toll. Underfunded health care services and overcrowding of inmates led to wildfire-like coronavirus outbreaks last year, leaving 7,000 correctional employees and thousands of inmates ill with the disease.

Staff is likely to get stretched even thinner, too, in the near future. The federal government is ending its contracts with private prisons, so there will soon be an infusion of those inmates into the federal penitentiaries. While some of those institutions are operating at less than full capacity, the Prison Policy Institute, an advocacy group for prison reforms, reported in December that the system overall is at 103% capacity.

Let’s be clear that ending the use of private prisons was a proper choice, even if it comes at a inopportune time. The use of those for-profit prisons encouraged communities to go down the road of industrial-scale incarceration policies that exploited and devalued inmates for financial gain of the corporations involved.

But while it was a step in the right direction to end contracts with those corporations, it’s hard to imagine what staff morale must be like in federal penitentiaries, given the confluence of all of the factors that are straining human resources. Officers at the medium-security prison in Mendota, Calif., staged a protest recently to demand better pay.

“We’re tired of the agency putting a price tag on our lives,” said Aaron McGlothin, president of the officers’ union. “We’ve had staff members killed in the line of duty. We’ve had staff members injured in the line of duty. At what point do they realize they’ve got a problem to fix, and quit putting a Band-Aid over it?”

Indeed, the situation calls for an urgent response, and it can’t simply involve throwing more compensation for guards into the mix. The federal government recently began offering a recruitment bonus and retention incentives for hard-to-fill positions, but that’s unlikely to be a long-term fix.

Rather, lawmakers need to address a number of factors that have played into the staffing shortage.

We must deal with the reality that prisons are underfunded, and require an increased public investment for health care, rehabilitation, education and more. And yes, that does include more pay for staff.

Lawmakers also need to keep pursuing criminal justice reforms aimed at rolling back racist War on Drugs-era policies that overfilled our penitentiaries. Those policies led to a disgracefully disproportionate number of Black men being incarcerated, many on low-level drug offenses that in no way justified lengthy prison sentences. Such lengthy incarcerations not only resulted in dangerous overcrowding but caused a wide array of social problems by breaking up families and entire communities.

Numerous studies demonstrate that harsh “tough on crime” guidelines don’t have their intended effect, but instead result in too many state and federal prisoners being placed in custody for minor offenses. What’s needed are overhauled guidelines that put genuinely bad characters behind bars while not slapping extended sentences on people who, for instance, violate a three-strikes policy by committing minor crimes. Incarceration fornon-violent crimes by one-time offenders is not the way to improve our justice system or make our communities safer.

Unfortunately, lawmakers who were so eager to appear tough on crime through their support of harsher punishments weren’t willing to increase corrections funding. The inevitable outcome is what we’re seeing today — persistent overcrowding, overworked staff and inadequate services.

Sentencing guidelines need to be updated and modernized.