When the mighty fall, they sometimes end up below where they started, metaphorically. Case in point: One-time Silicon Valley high flier Elizabeth Holmes reported to a minimum security federal prison camp for women Wednesday. For a sentence of 135 months, the convicted fraudster and mother of two tots will experience the care and custody of the Bureau of Prisons.
To put a capstone on our BOP series, I wanted to share some of the feedback from your federal colleagues working in a challenging situation. Like border patrol officers and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, they deal with a difficult set of federal “customers” close-up and in-person. No telework.
Prison camp seems fitting punishment for essentially lying to investors for 20 years. Holmes is unfree, but in a relatively benign prison situation. She’ll have vegetarian tacos and such so she can maintain her meat-free diet.
Minimum security “camps” house white collar criminals and those convicted of non-financial, non-violent crimes. They do have camp-like qualities — multiple buildings you can walk among, open spaces with lawns, cooking privileges, liberal visiting policies. Some of them don’t even have fences. An inmate could walk off, but why would she? It would only land her in a much tougher prison and add to her rap sheet. A relative I’m close with once did six years in such a camp, was released, and returned to his wife, grown children and career.
No one would mistake a minimum security camp for a resort, but neither do the camps resemble maximum security prisons that house violent inmates, some of whom have nothing to lose by repeated violence.
I mention all this because, for correctional officers, the job must vary hugely. Some supervise minimum security women and may experience some lip or a scornful look. Others circulate in situations where suddenly life and limb are at stake. Some of their concerns are specific to the prison setting, but others are universal, like pay and access to leadership.
I’ve been hearing from quite a few correctional officers after my series, The Worst Place to Work in the Federal Government, aired and posted last week. We explored why BOP earned the lowest score in the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places To Work rankings.
One message came from a former inmate. In some ways it encompasses the challenges and the potential of correctional work and of the BOP.
Nicole wrote, “I spent several years in federal prison. Fortunately for me, I was given the opportunity to participate in a welding apprenticeship program. This 6,000 hour hands-on program quite literally saved my life.” She said she works as a maintenance superintendent for a large, publicly traded company. “They pay me VERY well and I owe that to the training I was able to receive in prison.”
Nicole added, “Women don’t need bead-making classes or crochet. We need trade skills. Our country needs trade skills!”
The Government Accountability Office found that BOP has struggled to meet its mandates under the 2018 First Step Act. Congress required the agency to find ways to measure inmates’ risks of recidivism — return to prison after release — and ensure programming is there to help reduce the risk. The pandemic scrambled many plans. For BOP it made life especially difficult for prison staff and inmates alike, and it curtailed training and education programs. Nicole argues for programs like the welding training, and the materials needed to weld things together.
I also heard from current and retired correctional officers. A sample:
“Brother you have no idea how bad the federal bureau of prisons can be,” wrote a retiree and whistleblower. “The federal Bureau of Prisons will chew you up and spit you out. I have a BA and MS from an accredited university. The BOP, like the FBI, needs to be deconstructed and rebuilt from the ground up. I’m not the only person who feels that way.”
His complaints center on having been passed over for promotions despite having a “stack of awards.”
Tony pointed out pay scales, writing, “I love your articles but I’m disappointed in our director. She knows the biggest issue is pay. Some of our facilities … have an active roster of 40 correctional officers from a roster that should have over 100.” He said low pay relative to other law enforcement jobs in his metropolitan area make it hard to hire and retain. Some people, he said, jump to higher-paying jobs in the local county, without even the requirement of that agency’s academy training.
Others want a straight line of communication to top management. Writes James, a 15-year correctional officer, “I think Director Peters needs to make an honest effort and listen to the correction officers at every institution. Most correctional officers wouldn’t want to talk to the director because of fear of retaliation from their supervisor, and It’s clear that she only has the information given to her by the management of the institutions.”
He also cites the staff shortage-induced overtime and pay. “To hire the quality of new staff the BOP wants, they need to look at making the pay more competitive and figure out how to give officers more flexible quality time with their families. Officers have to call in sick to get a day or weekend off with their family.”
Corrections, like so many federal jobs, becomes a calling for many. For correctional officers, it shouldn’t be a sentence.