GAO’s expert on federal prisons has long list of ideas to improve government’s worst place to work

As the Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the Government Accountability Office, Goodwin is like a stern but compassionate teacher, as she exami...

Follow the rest of Federal News Network’s series, The Worst Place to Work in the Federal Government.

The Federal Drive with Tom Temin talks in this podcast with Gretta Goodwin. As the Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the Government Accountability Office, Goodwin is like a stern but compassionate teacher, as she examines and evaluates the Bureau of Prisons. She treats the subject with tough love, offering specific ideas on how the Bureau could rise from “worst place to work in the federal government.”

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And we’ve talked about so many issues. I mean, they have acquisition issues, they have programing issues. But in terms of their employees, everything that I have learned in researching the series is that somehow it comes down to the low levels of staffing relative to what they are authorized and budgeted to have staffing for correctional officers, the main linchpin in the whole prison system. What’s your assessment of the workforce related issues there?

Gretta Goodwin So as we talk about in all of the work we’ve done, there are some longstanding staffing challenges at the Bureau of Prisons. One of the main ones, of course, is about their authorized level versus their actual levels of staffing. This current fiscal year they have about 40,000 authorized staffing levels, but right now they have only about 34 to 35,000 staff on hand. So that means they’re short staffed. And with them being so short staffed, correctional officers and the other people who are there might have to engage in overtime or they might have to be augmented to work in other areas for which they don’t normally work in every day. That can present a lot of stress and a lot of exhaustion on the staff that are there. So that’s one of the reasons why some of the staffing challenges are so severe. And we see it with this short staffing that they have.

Tom Temin Because you have to have a minimum number of people at a given moment in the cellblocks and doing the work of supervising what’s going on there. And if you don’t have enough correctional officers, then they have to work sometimes two shifts in a row.

Gretta Goodwin Absolutely. And not just that if you don’t. So that’s the overtime piece. The augmentation piece is maybe someone who works in another part of the prison facility who isn’t a day to day corrections officer, maybe they’re in kind of the main office or maybe they’re in records, they might have to come in to help assist. That’s that is something that they refer to as augmentation. And while everyone at BOP is trained as a corrections officer, if that’s not your day to day, day in, day out duties, you might not be as comfortable doing that. But then you might, if you are you’re working in the records office, you might have to be augmented to help and be a corrections officer for that day. That adds to that person’s stress and it adds to the corrections officers who are on duty because they’re trying to be mindful of the safety and security of the individual who had been augmented, in addition to ensuring the safety and security of themselves and the prisoners that they’re overseeing.

Tom Temin And the prisoners probably have exquisite knowledge of, Oh, look, here comes the lady from records department. She hasn’t been on the floor in a while.

Gretta Goodwin That could be. That could be. And that adds to the additional stress and concern for the safety of everyone involved.

Tom Temin And you did answer the question I had. Everyone that goes to work in a prison facility has basic training in being a correctional officer.

Gretta Goodwin Yes, they do. Yes, they do. Because at any point you might have to perform those duties.

Tom Temin What have you. I mean, you’ve recommended over the years that they have to get up to full staffing. What are some of the specific ways they can actually do that?

Gretta Goodwin Yeah, Thank you, Tom. So a couple of things that we have recommended over the years, specifically as it relates to staffing, we’ve asked and recommended that BOP develop and implement a reliable method for calculating their staffing levels or amend their existing methods. So when we did a report looking specifically at BOP staffing back in 2021, there were times where it wasn’t clear if BOP had a good sense for what all of their staffing challenges were. The methods that they had in place weren’t always as reliable as they could have been. When we issued our report, we made that recommendation. Another recommendation that we made as it relates to staffing, is for them to do a risk assessment of their overtime use because having the correctional guards do overtime and having that overtime in and of itself that leads to exhaustion for the actual officer and that could affect the safety of the officer and the people who are incarcerated. And then we asked that they kind of develop and implement a method where they could routinely collect and evaluate their employee assistance program. So they have this employee assistance program. But at the time we were doing the work, they hadn’t really done a lot of evaluation of that program. And in particular, we wanted them to find out what the actual employees thought of their employee assistance programs. So there are a couple of things or more than couple. There are few recommendations that we issued that we think would help them get a better handle on what their staffing challenges are and what the effects of those staffing challenges are on the people who are working there.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Gretta Goodwin. She’s director of Homeland Security and Justice issues at the Government Accountability Office. And that question EAP employee assistance plan, there has been a steady maybe not a huge, but a steady and unfortunate drumbeat of suicides among correctional officers. And have you dealt with that one?

Gretta Goodwin When we did the report in 2021, we did. We looked at the suicide numbers for the corrections officers per 100,000, and we kind of compared that with the overall suicide numbers in the country. And those numbers were pretty high. The suicide rates of correctional officers, they were relatively high. Kind of consistent with the overall population. But we’re talking about a smaller population. So those numbers are very high. Some of the recommendations we made focus on the BOP getting at why that’s happening. So starting to collect data and information before someone gets to that point. What does BOP see happening with their corrections officers? So the Employee Assistance Program provides grief counseling, basic counseling, if someone’s having family concerns, all of that counseling. But BOP had never really done an the evaluation of the program itself. And so we recommended that they do that so they could get a better handle on what types of issues might be coming up in some of those within their employee assistance program. And I will say that the recommendations that we made to BOP about their employee assistance program, they have taken those up. For example, one of the recommendations we made around BOP’s ability to address the suicide data that it has. We ask that they utilize that data to assess the suicide rate among the BOP staff, and we asked that they tailor what they were learning to their suicide prevention training materials. And that would help them get a better handle on what was actually happening and ensure that they were making available the programs that were efficient and that were working. And so what we do know, we issued the recommendation. That recommendation has been closed as implemented because BOP did issue some new training materials and guidance that they developed in conjunction with a working group. So they pulled together a working group to get a better handle and a better sense for what was happening. So they so in conjunction with that working group, they modified their training materials so they have a new training materials in place. Our sense when we saw those materials is that it provided a clear and precise purpose and language to help people who might be at the point where they’re considering suicide or just might be in need of some kind of additional counseling. They also, in those training materials, provided information for the national suicide prevention line, and they also provided additional information for their employee assistance program. So that way, individuals could view the training materials, look to see what’s available to them, and then make use of that. And so that has helped the BOP increase its understanding about the extent to which the deaths by suicide are occurring in their in their workplace. And so it’s helping them understand trends and they have better tailored their efforts to present suicide. That was a couple of years ago. We will be circling back, but it did address our recommendations.

Tom Temin And in the larger sense they have issues of salary levels because some of the prisons are in really remote areas, which leads to a recruitment issue because there’s just not that many people versus if you’re recruiting for Los Angeles or New York City area where there are also federal prisons, but then the salaries that might be attractive in the rural, distant areas don’t cut it in Los Angeles, in New York areas. Have you made any recommendations on that general issue matching salaries and recruitment with the geographical locations that vary so widely for the GOP?

Gretta Goodwin So you are correct, Tom. One of the things we learned when we were doing this work is just that people, the locations where they are are not places where people are always excited to live. And what BOP was doing, they were providing different types of incentives to get recruitment and retention incentives. They were also providing student loan repayments. They do provide higher rates of pay for some of their more specialized positions, such as a physician or a psychologist, because those those positions can also be really difficult to hire for with BOP, particularly if you are in some of the more rural areas. Some of the recommendations that we made around that was basically that they understand how those staffing incentives were actually working. We asked them to develop some guidelines on performance measures and goals so that they could have a better sense for whether these staffing incentives were actually helping. And if they weren’t, we asked them to give some thought about adjusting those incentives as appropriate. That particular recommendation, they’ve done some things, but it still remains open because they they need to do some ongoing work to determine the effectiveness of those staffing incentives. So it’s something that we did pay attention to. And we know that BOP is closely watching that and they’re in the process of hiring a contractor to get a better handle on whether those incentives are actually helping. We’ll be circling back on that one.

Tom Temin And what about the continuity of leadership? Michael Horowitz on Monday noted that in his 11 years as IG of the Justice Department, he has dealt with eight BOP directors, eight of them in 11 years. I think one of your reports said there were a parade of six in six years. Now, Ms. peters, again, we’re going to be speaking with her later this week. She’s been there, what, a year now?

Gretta Goodwin And so about a year. That’s absolutely correct. One of the reasons BOP, the management, the federal prison system is on GAO’s high risk list has to do with leadership and leadership commitment. And it has been six directors in the past six years that can make it really difficult to – first, you got to develop and the change and then you want to implement the change. And if you keep having different leaders, one leader might have a really great idea, but then the next leader might decide to do something else. And so it does lead to a very high level of inconsistency. And that actually doesn’t help for staff morale either to know that someone comes in, there’s this idea just when you’re getting ready to possibly implement the idea, that person goes away. Then a new director comes in and could possibly start over.

Tom Temin Plus, if you have a sclerotic middle management layer, that’s a bureaucratic process of any organization, they figure, well, this one’s going to be gone soon, too. We don’t really need to change anything.

Gretta Goodwin That’s about the leadership, right? And that’s about how well they are interacting and the trust level between the leadership and staff. Those are some human capital issues that my understanding is that the current director is very well aware of. She has the kind of background that I think would be well-suited for her, for her leadership, for for this bureau. She herself was a director of prison system, a state prison system, and she has an inspector general’s background. I know that they are undergoing some strategic planning. So she’s beginning to think broadly about what BOP will look like.

Tom Temin And now that it’s on the high risk list, the GAO will not let the BOP off the hook so quick, will you?

Gretta Goodwin We will not. We will not, Tom. And with the high risk list, our comptroller general has met with the director Peters. They’ve talked about a path forward. We will be working and closely with BOP. We will be monitoring the things that they’re doing to address the issues that we raised on the high risk list. And we will just continue to follow up. They have had longstanding issues and challenges. They’re not going to go away overnight. And GAO will be there to pay attention and to monitor how things are developing.


Follow the rest of Federal News Network’s series, The Worst Place to Work in the Federal Government.

Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories