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 Working Conditions in Federal Prison 

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Michael Santos

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News reports confirm that federal prison workers are struggling under the worst working conditions in decades due to COVID-19 pandemic.

News reports confirm that federal prison workers are struggling under the worst working conditions in decades due to COVID-19 pandemic.

Advocates concerned about criminal justice and prison reform in America have long been vocal about the management of the US Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). News reports suggest that many Americans think that the federal prison system is broken. Overcrowding, health care, staffing shortages, and mental health are among the top problems in the prison system today.

On August 25, 2021, Business Insider (BI) published a detailed expose of the current working conditions in federal prisons amid the COVID19 pandemic. The BI article focuses primarily (though not exclusively) on the working conditions prison workers are living with at the medium-security men’s prison at Leavenworth, Kansas. The same problems that plague Leavenworth exist across the federal prison system as a whole. 

In Business Insider’s article  Unrest at the Big House: Federal Prison Workers are Fed Up, Burned Out, and Heading for the Exits, writer Camila DeChalus uses federal prison workers’ own words to tell the tale of their unacceptable working conditions and despair. She reports on her interviews with 18 current and former BOP employees throughout the country “about their working conditions and how those had affected their mental health and decisions to work at — or leave — an agency critical to the criminal justice system.” Their experiences are not surprising to people involved with prison reform advocacy, but they are disheartening.

Our team at Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, regularly consults with people involved with the criminal justice system and their families, including people in federal prison. Through our own experiences and our current work with former and current inmates, we are acutely aware of the many instances in which the BOP has failed to protect staff and inmates’ well-being. 

The root of the current problems lies in years of neglect, mismanagement, and disdain for the prison population in America. The COVID-19 crisis helped expose weaknesses that were already inherent in the system. From talking to inmates inside and recently released from various federal facilities around the country, we know first hand that the pandemic made a challenging situation even more difficult for prison staff and inmates alike. 

The BOP’s overall response to the pandemic is lacking. BI’s reporting adds to the mountain of evidence. For example, in the BI article, prison staff allege that the BOP and wardens at certain prisons have tried to manipulate COVID-19 data and are not forthcoming with the actual numbers. Their motivation is not to look bad or miss out on a bonus or promotion due to COVID-19. Such conduct, if true, is appalling.

The delays and mishandling of compassionate release applications is another pandemic-related example of the BOP’s lacking response.

*Pro-Tip: If you or someone you love is incarcerated in federal prison and may be eligible for compassionate release, contact us. Since the start of the pandemic, our team at Prison Professors has been working with federal inmates and their families on requests for compassionate release due to COVID-19.  

The problem with the working conditions of prison staff has significant ripple effects. If prison staff in charge of supervising federal inmates works under prolonged strenuous circumstances, the consequences also affect inmates and their families. Observers, experts, and lawmakers are warning of potentially dire consequences unless the BOP addresses the working conditions at federal prisons. As the BI article notes, “when federal prisons are understaffed, it puts incarcerated people’s lives at risk because prison workers cannot respond quickly to their medical issues or de-escalate conflicts between them.”

The list of problematic issues affecting federal prison staff across the country includes:

  • significant staffing shortages system-wide; 
  • mandatory overtime;
  • lack of proper staff training; 
  • delayed overtime pay;
  • lack of PPE;
  • fear of contracting COVID-19;
  • lack of mental health support;
  • female officers dealing with sex discrimination and sexual harassment;
  • low morale;
  • increased attrition;
  • difficulty hiring;
  • unsanitary conditions;
  • inability to properly social distance;
  • undercounting/under-reporting of COVID-19 cases; and 
  • overall lack of leadership.

These examples come directly from prison workers and others with first-hand knowledge of current prison conditions. Indeed, the BI article reports that in April 2021, prison experts told Congress that “Leavenworth penitentiary reflects conditions many federal prison employees face nationwide. Beyond long hours and rough conditions, some [facilities] are requiring employees to participate in “augmentation,” where just about any employee who isn’t a custodian — counselors, doctors, nurses — substitute as correctional officers despite receiving little or no training.” Over a year into the pandemic, prison workers’ complaints about their current working conditions seem to be falling on deaf ears.

As advocates for prison reform, the team at Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, is encouraged when news organizations like Business Insider amplify the voices of those trying to sound the alarm. We hope it helps spread the word about what is happening inside America’s federal prisons, shed additional light, and bring accountability to the issue of prison conditions. 

The criminal justice system has neglected to improve prison conditions for far too long. Prison workers are part of the administration of justice in America. They deserve fair working conditions to enable them to do their jobs well.  

CLICK HERE TO READ Unrest at the Big House: Federal Prison Workers are Fed Up, Burned Out, and Heading for the Exits by Camila DeChalus.

Warden of Leavenworth Federal Prison Departs

Following an investigation into poor working conditions, which Business Insider and Camila DeChalus reported last month, we now hear that the Warden of Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas, Donald Hudson, is no longer working at the facility. Indeed, it is unclear whether Hudson is still with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) at all.

Many prison workers around the Federal Bureau of Prisons openly welcomed the news of Hudson’s departure and now anticipate much-needed changes in the working conditions at the prison. One prison worker told the press that “it is rare to see them do the right thing and make the right steps,”  referring to management at the BOP.

Critics of working and living conditions around the BOP are gratified to see new management at Leavenworth and hope it is a harbinger of better things to come for people living in BOP custody. 

Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, is hopeful that the  news out of Leavenworth signals a more responsive Federal Bureau of Prisons, willing to look at all the issues that need addressing throughout the prison system. 

It is long overdue for the BOP to pay increased attention to the welfare of its prison staff, as well as the welfare of those serving time in BOP custody.

Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, works alongside (not in place of) civil and criminal defense counsel to help clients proactively navigate through investigations and prosecutions. Our team also helps clients prepare mitigation and compliance strategies.

If you have any questions or are uncertain about any of the issues discussed in this post, schedule a call with our risk mitigation team to receive additional guidance.

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