Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) correctional officers are concerned that an upcoming loss of retention-based pay bonuses will lead to worsening staff attrition and further deterioration of workplace conditions.
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents over 30,000 BOP correctional officers and other staff members, is urging BOP to renew annual retention incentives for correctional officers at United States Penitentiary Thomson (USP Thomson) in Illinois, ahead of BOP’s planned end of the bonuses on Dec. 31.
The more than 34,000 correctional officers and staff at BOP, a Department of Justice agency, face near-countless workforce challenges, including significant and persistent understaffing.
To try to stave off at least some of that attrition, the Office of Personnel Management approved 25% retention incentives for hundreds of Thomson correctional officers in 2021, after the officers gained support in Congress from Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).
But agencies that have OPM-approved retention incentives must review the pay bonuses at least annually to determine if they are still needed. Agency officials must terminate retention incentives for employees when the conditions that warranted the incentives in the first place no longer apply, federal regulations state.
A BOP official declined to share with Federal News Network the reason for BOP’s decision to terminate the pay bonuses.
But notably, by September 2022, as a result of offering retention incentives, staffing levels at Thomson increased from 56% to 78%, BOP Director Colette Peters said in 2022 testimony.
Now, Jon Zumkehr, president of AFGE Local 4070, representing 450 correctional officers at Thomson, said that the upcoming loss of that incentive will likely cause a surge of staff attrition at the facility. More than a third of Thomson’s correctional officers said they plan to leave if the incentive is not renewed. And signs are already pointing in that direction.
“We had two staff members quit this week, just from Monday to today,” Zumkehr said in an interview with Federal News Network.
With the potential attrition of officers, the loss of the retention incentives could ultimately reduce the safety of both officers and inmates at Thomson, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) said in a Sept. 27 letter to BOP Director Colette Peters, urging her to maintain the pay incentive into 2024 and beyond.
“The retention pay is critical to maintaining the staffing level necessary to allow the Thomson personnel to do their jobs safely and effectively,” the AFL-CIO letter said.
As BOP’s newest location, Thomson is somewhat of a unique BOP facility, Zumkehr said.
“Most prisons have been around for 20, 30, 40 years — they have a foundation. We don’t have that,” Zumkehr said. “That’s what separates us from everybody else. We’re asking to keep the current staff we have here, because it takes time and money to train staff.”
Thomson correctional officers have seen other recent changes as well. BOP closed Thomson’s Special Management Unit (SMU) earlier this year and permanently converted the facility to a low security institution. The facility had been operating as a maximum-security institution since the prison was converted to a federal facility in 2012.
Along with major staffing challenges at the SMU, there were also years of abuse toward inmates, multiple deaths — including both suspected homicides and suspected suicides — as well as many cases of sexual assault, according to a report from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
BOP officials said they believe reducing the security level will minimize the need for overtime and therefore reduce staff burnout.
“Considering the employment challenges Thomson has endured, I am thankful we can finally tell the employees of Thomson we heard them, and we have come to a decision that will almost eliminate the need for mandatory overtime and augmentation,” BOP said in an Aug. 25 press release.
Still, Zumkehr said he’s concerned that recent staffing loss at the facility, combined with the loss of the retention incentive, will critically worsen conditions at Thomson overall.
“That’s what we’re going through right now,” Zumkehr said. “We’re losing staff left and right … We’ll have a giant abyss that will open up if they remove this retention bonus.”
The remote location of the Thomson facility in rural northwest Illinois is also a deterrent for potential incoming employees.
“There’s a lack of childcare, a lack of schools — factories pay more and Illinois state prisons pay more [than BOP],” Zumkehr said.
The workforce issues at Thomson are not uncommon. BOP faces staggering and chronic staffing gaps at facilities nationwide, at just 60% staffing capacity overall, according to AFGE.
The lack of staff also leads to the bureau’s inability to investigate employee misconduct cases, a DOJ Office of Inspector General report from May found.
As of September 2022, 7,893 BOP employee misconduct cases remained open, and BOP had not yet disciplined another 2,279 employees with allegations of misconduct, the OIG report said. And the bureau does not currently have a way to figure out how much of a workforce it actually needs.
“We found that the BOP does not know whether the number of staff it represents as necessary to manage its institutions safely and effectively is accurate,” the report said. “The absence of reliable information about appropriate staffing levels makes it difficult for the BOP to determine whether its institutions are appropriately staffed and to communicate its needs to stakeholders in the executive and legislative branches.”
In contrast to Thomson, a handful of other BOP facilities will soon start receiving 25% retention incentives after an approval from OPM in September. But AFGE remains wary even among the newly approved retention bonuses.
“While we absolutely support anything that is positive, because it is very beneficial to our members in the field, we absolutely need more help,” AFGE Council 33 National President Brandy Moore White told Federal News Network earlier this month.
A BOP official said for Thomson staff, the incentive is currently in place and will expire at the end of the year. In the meantime, AFGE is urging the agency to renew the incentives to try to prevent worsening attrition.
Zumkehr said, “if we don’t have the staff, who’s going run the prison?”