Prison workers fed up and burnt out despite Biden’s promise to improve conditions

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  • Insider spoke to 10 current and former prison workers about their eroding working conditions.
  • Overtime and prison staffing shortages are some of the reasons workers quit.
  • The agency said it has improved conditions in federal prisons despite these concerns.

President Joe Biden promised to overhaul the criminal justice system and improve conditions in federal prisons.

But more than a year after he took office, some federal prison workers told Insider that their working conditions in federal correctional facilities have deteriorated as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers.

Staffing shortages, forced overtime, and the practice of “rise,” where non-custodial employees — counselors, doctors, nurses — have to replace correctional officers despite having little or no training, are just a few. problems plaguing dozens of federal prisons across the country.

The conditions make many prison workers feel burnt out and cause some to leave the agency.

“The staffing issues, the stress issue…as the months pass, it just gets worse and worse,” said Joe Gulley, president of the union local representing federal employees at Leavenworth US Penitentiary in Kansas.

Josh Lepird, who works for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Oklahoma, told Insider that there have been “several people who have left the Bureau here locally due to this increased stress level and mandatory overtime.” .

“Poor staffing is one more worry we don’t need in the face of COVID-19 protocols and the increased stress of the prison population, which has more restrictions due to the pandemic,” Lepird said.

Federal prison workers protesting outside USP Leavenworth prison.

Federal prison workers demonstrating outside USP Leavenworth prison.

Jean Phéral.


There are 122 federal prisons located across the country. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is one of the Justice Department’s largest agencies, currently oversees 154,194 incarcerated people and has 36,348 employees as of March 18, according to his website.

But the prison staff has decreased.

About 6,200 Federal Bureau of Prisons employees left the agency from March 2020 through February 12, 2022, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This translates to 8.7 employees leaving every day during this period.

Hiring does not seem to have kept pace. The agency previously told Insider that it hired 1,967 employees from March 2021 through July 17, 2021 to address the staffing shortage. The agency has repeatedly declined to provide Insider with more information about the number of people it hired from July 17, 2021 through March 2022.

For years, the Federal Bureau of Prisons struggled to hire enough employees for its facilities. Due to staff shortages, prison workers had to work overtime and participate in augmentation practice. But when the pandemic hit in March 2020, fears of contracting COVID-19 and a lack of social distancing within these facilities only intensified these problems, according to federal prison workers.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons issued an employee investigation last year, which revealed that since the start of the pandemic, “the majority of respondents reported feeling increased stress or anxiety at work and being asked to perform tasks outside of their normal duties”.

According to the survey, almost one in three respondents who said they were stressed about their job said they had considered leaving the Bureau of Prisons.

Leavenworth Prison Camp.

Prison workers at USP Leavenworth say the number of COVID-19 cases has declined.

Camila DeChalus


In August, Insider reported that prison staff at a Leavenworth correctional facility felt senior management was not taking enough action to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. At the time, the federal prison said only 10 staff members had contracted COVID-19 and recovered. But Gulley said the number of prison workers who contracted the virus was closer to 200.

Four current employees at a Leavenworth correctional facility recently told Insider that the number of COVID-19 cases has dropped significantly. But the problems of prison workers working longer hours and participating in the increase have caused many to quit.

“It’s definitely more than I’ve ever seen in my career,” Gulley said, referring to the number of staff who quit in the past four months since he started working at the prison. of Leavenworth in 2001.

Several prison workers across the country told Insider that if agency management continues to ignore these issues and not hire more employees, it will lead to more people quitting.

“I’m afraid if that doesn’t change, we’re going to see multiple staff members walk out or something tragic actually happens. Because you can only work one person for so long,” said John Butkovich, a corrections officer with a federal prison in Florence, Colorado.

The agency needs to act faster to address these concerns because staffing shortages in federal prisons can significantly harm incarcerated people residing there, said Liz Komar, sentencing review attorney at the Sentencing Project, a advocacy group working to reduce the use of incarceration. .

“People are confined to their cells for longer, staff have reported locking people in their cells for entire weekends, and then the medical care gets dramatically worse,” Komar said.

Komar said it can worsen the medical attention and care that incarcerated people receive.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has previously said it has taken several steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in federal correctional facilities.

The agency “is working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on creating and updating guidance to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in correctional facilities,” Benjamin O’Cone said. , spokesperson for the agency, told Insider.

“While a prison setting is unique when it comes to dealing with a pandemic, the care and treatment of an identified positive case of COVID-19 is not. The Bureau of Prisons is following the guidelines of the CDC, as well as physicians and community hospitals, with respect to quarantine and medical isolation procedures, as well as providing appropriate treatment,” O’Cone said.

O’Cone did not specifically address staffing shortages or why individuals are leaving.

Earlier this year, Michael Carvajal, who headed the Federal Bureau of Prisons, resigned from his post after coming under intense scrutiny over the agency’s handling of COVID-19 in federal correctional facilities.

Attorney General Merrick Garland has yet to name someone to replace him.

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