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This interview is part of the Federal Drive series: The Worst Place to Work in the Federal Government, focusing on the Bureau of Prisons, part of the Justice Department. Federal Drive with Tom Temin has already spoken to several people affiliated with the federal prison system. Now Tom Temin turns his attention toward a working senior officer specialist, who didn’t have official permission to speak publicly, so we’ll call him Officer X. His voice has...
This interview is part of the Federal Drive series: The Worst Place to Work in the Federal Government, focusing on the Bureau of Prisons, part of the Justice Department. Federal Drive with Tom Temin has already spoken to several people affiliated with the federal prison system. Now Tom Temin turns his attention toward a working senior officer specialist, who didn’t have official permission to speak publicly, so we’ll call him Officer X. His voice has been disguised to protect his anonymity and allow for a very candid discussion.
Tom Temin And just briefly describe your job and what you do. And if you feel okay about telling us where it is, if not, that’s okay, too. But basically, what does an officer specialist do and what’s your contact with the prison population on a day to day basis?
Officer X Well, generally, a three officer specialist is in between the line staff of officers and lieutenants management. We’re not management. We’re still bargaining staff. And we’re kind of the go between between the regular officers, before they need assistance from a lieutenant for whatever reason. Our job has traditionally been to train staff from when they get hired and that had fallen away and now we’re kind of being reorganized so we can do that better. Work with the inmate population. Usually we’re the ones who go straight through before again, things escalate to the point of needing a supervisor. We generally take positions of leadership within the prison before you can apply to be a lieutenant you have to have been an aide officer and have worked all the major positions in the facility before you can move up. It used to be a position that was competitive, that you applied for a lot of us took years before we could get to that point. Now it’s automatic and anybody can get it for just putting enough time in. So the value of it’s kind of decreased legally, but it could be high stress. For example, I worked in the SMU unit at Thompson at the officer in charge position. Running a SMU unit is what probably used to be the lieutenant’s job.
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Tom Temin What is a SMU unit special management unit?
Officer X The small unit was the special management was a restricted housing unit made up of the inmates that, for whatever reason, through violence, gang organization, extreme amounts of incident reports or disturbances and other negative behavior, been pushed through as like a last resort before being sent to the supermax. The idea was to be able to reintegrate some of these horrible, having committed all these horrible offenses, can we put them back at GP or not? And the SMU unit has continued to fail at every facility it’s ever been at. And they just closed it. And it felt like they kind of blamed all the officers for a program that they knew they were closing.
Tom Temin And just to clarify, then, your line level job of corrections officer, you are a level above that, which is then the last step as a line person or a bargaining unit person before becoming management.
Officer X That’s correct.
Tom Temin And because of the understaffing, do you find that you as an officer, supervisor, so to speak, officer specialist, do you get called back down to the corrections officer level sometimes on the floor because of staffing shortages.
Officer X Well we all did the same posts as a new officer. We just generally will have higher seniority so we kind of have our pick. For example, if I decided to go work a tower as opposed to the floor with the inmates, a lieutenant can say, hey, you’ve got enough experience, I’m short here, I need you to go work a different area. And it’s kind of hard to say no because you should be working leading the front kind of thing. So it’s our job to work in post as requested. But, it happens. We are not understaffed anymore where we are. But that’s because they closed the SMU program. So now they’re sending officers to go work facilities across the country as a corrective action.
Tom Temin Because they’ve scattered the prisoners that were troublesome out of that unit and now they’re placed throughout the system.
Officer X Yes, exactly.
Tom Temin And I guess let’s get to the heart of the matter here. Why do you think that the Bureau of Prisons ranked lowest in the best places to work in the federal government rankings, making it the worst place to work?
Officer X Traditionally just during any bad incident, we always say, what’s the first thing that caused it to become difficult? What’s the first thing to fail, was communication. And that has been our struggle. Our management and our staff don’t have any good communication with each other. For example, based on what’s happening at our facility, they said that we all had to take a class on communication, right? It was mandatory, whereas in the rest of the bureau it’s a voluntary, go-getter course to take communication. Everybody at the facility has to take it except for the management. The managers have yet to be part of that thing that is our weak link, right. Or we’re not communicating with each other, we don’t have an open dialog and they don’t show up. And so it feels like there’s this bigger divide. A lot of times in the bureau custody and non-custody have a divide. In our facility, it’s management and the line staff that are completely divided. It really feels like when there’s an incident that happens, the executive staff are concerned about how the inmates’ feelings are and they don’t discuss problems with the staff. So that kind of is a slap in the face for a lot of us.
Tom Temin Right. So you feel like you have to deal with the most difficult task, which is maintaining the order and also, in theory, at least, helping for the rehabilitation of the prisoners themselves. But you don’t have management that you feel communicates with what’s going on or shares your concerns.
Officer X Absolutely. Especially when it comes to holding them accountable. For years, we had issues where the inmates were committing sexual crimes against our staff members and there was almost zero accountability being enacted. Sometimes, like if an inmate received a consequence, it would be, for example, an inmate with no body coming to visit him would be having their visits taken away as a consequence for for committing a sexual act against a staff member. So like, how was that a sanction? Or for example, everybody in this new program was already basically on a limited amount of property and they would be given a property sanction where they’re not allowed to have anything. And again, that’s no deterrent.
Tom Temin We’re speaking with Officer X. He’s a senior officer specialist with the Bureau of Prisons. So do you consider it a good place to work? A bad place to work? I mean, what’s your own feeling about what you do for a profession and the agency you work for?
Officer X I started working in my first prison at age 20, and I had no interest in law enforcement or corrections at the time. I just, at the time needed a job. And then after working for a small amount of time, a few years, I got hired by the bureau and realized that it was a great opportunity for somebody, if I didn’t have a college education or didn’t have military, it was a great place for me to to find at least a livable wage and opportunities for promotion, advancement to move around a country – all sorts of benefits, health benefits and vacation and things like that. So I was very optimistic. Getting to this point, it seems like a lot of the benefits are slowly starting to dwindle away. And when it comes to when I train new officers, I try to explain why it’s important to have a work ethic. And now it’s harder and harder to find the reasons to back that up other than it’s the right thing to do. And sometimes that’s not enough.
Tom Temin I mean, do you feel a sense of mission still with respect to the goals of the Bureau of Prisons, which is rehabilitation officially?
Officer X I mean, there’s a great feeling when I run into an inmate in public that’s been released from prison that’s staying out of trouble. And it’s always an interesting situation where you try to make sure your family’s not there. But it’s really cool to go, hey, keep up the good work. The best compliment I can say is I hope I never see you again. But it’s a good feeling when you see someone start fresh and continue. Or if I met an ex-convict that’s continuing to do the right thing, I’m very supportive of that. I absolutely believe in people getting a fresh start. The problem is not everyone wants the fresh start. I firmly believe that the inmate that wants to rehabilitate themselves, nothing’s going to hold them back. They’re going to take advantage of the programs. They’re driven because that’s what it takes to rehabilitate is the personal drive. The inmates in the SMU, for example, are bound and determined to be away from the general public, and they’re going to continue to do that behavior in order to stay in the restrictive housing. And a lot of times it’s for their own safety that they’ve made that choice. So you could give those people as many opportunities or options, the ones who want to take advantage of it are going to do it. You can’t make them. We should provide the opportunities. And I, I firmly believe that’s important.
Tom Temin But you said earlier that the sense of the good benefits and good pay and values of the job have eroded away. I mean, nothing has changed in the general terms of federal employment. So what has ebbed away for you and what should the bureau, do you think, due to restore that sense of this is where I want to be?
Officer X Well, some of it is political. Some of it’s due to the fact that we’re continuing to have government shutdowns where you used to have a stable job and you were concerned about that, or you worry about the retirement benefits being changed by politics. But also, we’re driven to do a mission to keep the public safe from people who have chosen to be apart from society? And we’re supposed to be a role model and we’re given these values that we’re supposed to emulate in front of the inmate population, but that isn’t emulated above us. When I started in the bureau, there was a director that got pulled over on a DUI, and he tried to use his credentials to get out of getting a ticket for it. That happened, and a week after he wrote a solemn message about ethics. And it’s always the symbols like that where you are told what’s expected of you, but that is represented by your leadership.
Tom Temin Sure. And what about wardens? How have they been?
Officer X I can’t think of anyone in our current facility that supports our warden very much. A person has made it clear that their staff is not their priority. Morale is a hard thing to maintain in the best of circumstances. We’re now being told that officers are not allowed to raise their voices at inmates because we don’t want to intimidate them. It’s just, little things pop up here and there where it’s very much let us know that the executives do not have our backs.
Tom Temin So what are you hoping for from the new director, Miss Peters? And she’s like the 10th or something in five years. I mean, there’s been a rotation of top leadership. What would you expect from her to try to start righting the ship?
Officer X I understand it takes a long time to change anything. We always talk about you’re changing direction on the cruise ship, not a speedboat. And if your directors are only in office for a year or two, how can they make any real distinct change over time? Just the other day, the director made an announcement that they’re changing our core values. Our core values have traditionally been correctional excellence, respect and integrity, are the three. The previous director added courage to our core values. She decided to make a speech and an announcement to change our core values, to get rid of courage, replace it with compassion and add accountability. Those are all great ideas. That’s fine. But why is that the priority right now? To make a speech about changing our core values? There’s probably a lot more better policies, initiatives to get us better staffing. Get our facilities repaired. There’s so many other things that could be done rather than making a speech about some words that just should mean something to the average officer. But why is that a priority? It feels like lip service as opposed to any actual decision making. And that’s what we’ve heard from the state of Oregon was that she had a lot of great ideas, but what actually changed? The things that we’re being told that are going to be changed are things like restrictive housing units and holding inmates accountable. That really makes it feel like when you’re an officer, you get assaulted by an inmate and nothing bad happens, or you have an inmate with a history of that kind of behavior and you don’t take the precautionary measures or put them in the appropriate security confinement. These are people that aren’t concerned about what’s going to happen to you later. That’s hard. What I want to see is a balance, not swinging hard one way or the other. Our job is to carry out the directives handed down to us. It’s not really whether I agree with the director or not, necessarily, but if it’s consistently stuff that impacts the agency bad, it’s hard to want to carry that out. We’ll be part of continuing the bad decision.
Tom Temin And a final question. I mean, have you enjoyed your career and do you feel that people need to know more about what it’s like to be a corrections officer than what might be the clichés of someone walking around, banging on bars or something?
Officer X That’s something we talk about all the time is what would you change if you could change people’s perspective of what we do. That we are not the knuckle-dragging Neanderthals just waiting to beat an inmate. We know that that’s occasionally part of the job, that you have to get physical. Our job is to save that to the last resort, if at all possible. In a situation where you’re dealing with violent offenders it’s obviously more likely, but we’re trying to show that we’re an organization made up of a lot of people, either their veterans or former law enforcement from other agencies, people that care about what they do. I care about making sure my other coworkers go home safe. I care about the fact that at the end of the shift, all my inmates are still alive, in the same shape that they were when I got there. We care about that. We want to maintain peace and order. We would like to see not just the benefits that we wanted for ourselves, but I want to see people coming into replace me that care as much as I do. And how do I attract those people if I’m running out of the reasons? And so I have enjoyed my career. I’m proud to be a federal law enforcement officer and served my country. I did not serve in the military, but I believe I’ve served for half my life in corrections, and I’m proud of it. I don’t necessarily want my kid to follow my footsteps. I want my kid to do better than what I’ve done. And it has definitely been something that’s provided me opportunities that I wouldn’t have had without it.
Tom Temin is host of the Federal Drive and has been providing insight on federal technology and management issues for more than 30 years.