Pay reduction at Bureau of Prisons facility: Another view

Last week I related the case for maintaining 25% retention pay  for a group of Bureau of Prison employees. There’s another side of the story.

The employees in question work at the BOP’s low-security facility in Thomson, Illinois. BOP Director Colette Peters canceled their retention pay effective Jan. 1, and the head of the union local representing correctional officers predicted a mass exodus of staff.

But the former warden of FCI Thomson, Tom Bergami, called me to say he thinks Peters is correct in returning the staff there to regular pay. Why? The facility went from high security to low security, per headquarters. This occurred while Bergami was there. Word of the conditions while Thomson was high security had reached Congress. BOP officials apparently felt the only way to fix the situation was to change the facility altogether.

Inmates in the so-called Special Management Unit were moved elsewhere after violent incidents and murder. Some went to the Supermax facility in Florence, Colorado. Now that it’s low security, Thomson is overstaffed, Bergami said, adding that BOP should reassign many of Thomson’s billets to other locations. Bergami said 250 could adequately staff Thomson, not the 400 who work there now.

Bergami retired last July after 31 years at the agency, having worked at 13 of its institutions. Death threats stemming ultimately from what he said was systemic, and sometimes racially motivated, bad treatment of inmates, figured into his decision. That and what he said was lack of support from BOP upper management.

Bergami told his story in a detailed account last fall by The Marshall Project, a criminal justice reporting site in conjunction with NPR that conducted extensive interviews and document reviews. Bergami said then and told me the other day, firings of abusive officers were repeatedly overturned by regional BOP authorities. And that orders to use less restraint and certain abusive treatments of prisoners — including days of four-point restraint — were ignored by the staff, something the union local president, Jon Zumkehr, denied.

The situation devolved to where Bergami said the correctional officers were bribing inmates to stab him. Zumkehr has denied this also. During one prison walk-through, Bergami told me, prisoners surrounded him, telling they were “done with staff treating us like dogs.”

Now it seems unlikely Peters will reverse her order ending the 25% incentive pay.

I dwell on the Bureau of Prisons because last year, it had the lowest index in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government. The Partnership for Public Service compiles the indices yearly using data from the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Early survey results just came out from the Office of Personnel Management, which hasn’t released the agency-by-agency results.

But it got me thinking: Which agency will be the worst place to work when the Partnership rankings come out in the spring?

Averages are nice to know, but outliers provide the most interesting stories. The annual rankings spare no one. Last year, after the Bureau of Prisons came out as it did, I created a series of interviews and articles with that very title: “The Worst Place to Work in the Federal Government.”

My coverage of BOP included interviews of people ranging from a man formerly incarcerated for murder, to BOP Director Colette Peters. The column associated with the radio series was by far my most clicked-on of the year last year. One reason may be that  everyone has seen occasional tiffs between staff and management, but not at the extreme which occurs at a few BOP locations. It’s hard to not look at a car wreck. I wish Peters well in her mission to improve the agency, but it remains a work in progress. We’ll keep you posted.


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