Bureau of Prisons facing challenges with frontline staffing levels

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The Bureau of Prisons has one of the federal government’s grimmer missions: keeping more than 125,000 convicted offenders safely behind bars. It needs to do a better job of assessing the staffing levels of frontline employees though. For more, the Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the Government Accountability Office Gretta Goodwin.

Tom Temin: Miss Goodwin, good to have you on.

Gretta Goodwin: Thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: 37,000 people, plus or minus, work for BOP and guard and otherwise staff prisons, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. And what I read from your report is that they have trouble even knowing what the right staffing levels will be at a given institution.

Gretta Goodwin: That’s right, Tom. So this report looks at BOP staffing levels and related challenges. And so we cover three things in this report. The first thing we look at, we look at how BOP assesses its staffing level needs. We look to see whether they have a good sense for the cause, or the impact of the staffing challenges that they’re facing. The second thing we look at, we look at how effective the practices that they’ve currently put in place have been to address the challenges that they have around staffing. And then the third thing we look at, we look at wellness-related concerns from working in a corrections environment. So we’re looking to see the types of initiatives that BOP has put in place to address some of the mental health concerns that they have for their staff.

Tom Temin: And one of the statistics you cite is the incredible rise in overtime costs. And also there is a steady rise or steady drumbeat of suicides among federal employees that work at BOP. So it seems to point to overwork and also mental conditions that are just a result of working in a very difficult environment, correct?

Gretta Goodwin: Yeah, so one of the things we look at when we think about just the level of overtime, and then the use of augmentation. So augmentation happens when a staff member who doesn’t typically function as a corrections officer is transferred over to that particular duty. And so it’s important to remember that everyone who works for BOP gets corrections training, and they can be considered a corrections officer, even if they’re hired in food services or health services, or any type of administrative position. The only staff who are excluded from being augmented are psychological services staff because of their specialized needs. And so for example, if someone who typically does education gets augmented to being someone in charge of custody, that would be a different experience for them, although they would have the training.

Tom Temin: Okay, and just getting back to the overtime for a moment. If overtime has gone up, I think tenfold, to a couple $100 million a year in the most recent year that you were able to get the full figures, it seems like they just have a basic level of understaffing.

Gretta Goodwin: Okay, so yeah, BOP has spent about $824 million on overtime, covering the fiscal years 2015 to 2019. During that same period, as you noted, the expenditures across all of BOP institutions increased by 102%. BOP has told us that staffing shortages can lead to increases in overtime. And in 2017, they had a hiring freeze. In 2018, they had a reduction in authorized positions. So they told us that these two things help explain the increases that they have in overtime.

Tom Temin: And of course, if people are working overtime, then that tends to make worse the problems of psychology that happen because of the difficult working conditions. Is that a fair connection to make?

Gretta Goodwin: That is part of it. And so when we talk about the wellness-related effects of working in a correctional environment, the substantial use of overtime can lead to stress on the workers. That substantial use of augmentation, and a substantial use of overtime, both lead to stress on the workers.

Tom Temin: And again, augmentation is you do this job basically, but this week, you’re gonna do that job and we’ll train you but you’re augmenting something that you’re not primarily there to do.

Gretta Goodwin: Exactly. So augmentation is BOP’s practice of assigning staff whose typical duties are not those of a corrections officer. Now, mind you, everyone who works for BOP goes through the corrections training, and they are first considered a corrections officer. But  if they’re not doing that post every day, that’s not what they’re typically used to. And then having to go to that extra post could also add to their stress level.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Gretta Goodwin. She is director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the Government Accountability Office. And when you look at the basic numbers, 125,000 prisoners and 37,000 employees, it sounds like — reading between the lines here — Congress is saying ‘golly, four to one prisoners to staff. That’s better than you get on a first class airline cabin’ as far as staffing levels. What do you need so many people for? But it sounds like there’s a basic disagreement on how many people it takes to enforce incarceration in a way that safer, both the incarcerated and the guards.

Gretta Goodwin: The staffing ratios depend on the type of institution. And it depends on the location. So by way of example, if we’re talking about a low-security prison, then the inmate to staff ratios can be anywhere from seven to 20. So that would be seven inmates per one corrections officer or 20 inmates per a corrections officer. But that’s in a low security prison. If we’re talking about a high security prison, a prison that has more risk associated with it, then we’re talking about anywhere from four to seven inmate to corrections officer ratio. So it would depend on the type of institution you’re in, and also the location of the institution. But the inmate to staff ratio is indeed a concern for BOP.

Tom Temin: And there have been some real safety incidents. I mean, their union regularly reports on attacks on guards by inmates, especially female guards. And so it sounds like they definitely need more people in certain locations so there is less fatigue, and less degradation of their observational skills as the shift goes on and on and on. So what are your recommendations with respect to establishing the right staff levels?

Gretta Goodwin: So we are asking BOP to conduct an analysis, do more rigorous methodology, evaluating what their staffing levels are. So we have seven recommendations that we put forward in this report. All of the recommendations are related to management of staff and resources. So we’re asking BOP to develop and implement reliable methods for calculating staffing levels. We’re also asking them to conduct a risk assessment of its overtime and augmentation use, so they get a better handle on the risk that might be associated to staff and just overall institutional security because they’re having to use so much overtime and augmentation. We’re also asking BLP to develop an implement a method for ensuring its employee assistance programs are effective and efficient.

Tom Temin: I was going to say, if someone is stressed because of being reassigned because of being an augmenter, or just simply working overtime on what they normally do, at least the EAP could help mitigate some of the effects that could lead to suicide or depression or whatever problems they might have on or off the job.

Gretta Goodwin: Yeah, so BOP, under its employee assistance program offers a number of initiatives to help the staff deal with augmentation, or to help the staff deal with just overall mental health issues. And so one of the things they have is a crisis support team that they use. It’s a peer based team that provides support to employees when they’re responding to critical incidents. And the employee assistance program in and of itself also identifies and provide mental health services to BOP staff.

Tom Temin: And did BOP generally accept these recommendations? In some ways, it’s a route to getting the staffing they need. But on the other hand, it’s something they need to tighten up from a managerial standpoint.

Gretta Goodwin: BOP accepted all of our recommendations, and we look forward to following up to see how they’re going to implement our recommendations, but they have accepted all of them.

Tom Temin: This all sounds like a set of problems that didn’t start yesterday.

Gretta Goodwin: So BOP staffing challenges are long standing. And the agency needs reliable methods for calculating the staffing levels, for understanding the effects of their employee centered programs, and understanding the effectiveness of their employee assistance programs. What we know from the work that we’ve done, until then, BOP will miss out on several opportunities to better analyze their staffing data and improve upon their employee wellness programs.

Tom Temin: And we know that the COVID pandemic has had a bad effect on prisons at all levels. Are you looking at that also?

Gretta Goodwin: We are. This particular report does not cover the coronavirus within the prisons. This report looks at fiscal year 2015 to March of 2020. So that allows for us to do some trend analysis on the staffing challenges. We have ongoing work looking specifically at BOP’s response to COVID and the impact on facilities, inmates and staff. That report should be available this summer.

Tom Temin: Gretta Goodwin is director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the Government Accountability Office. Thanks so much.

Gretta Goodwin: Thank you.

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