BIG SPRING, Texas — On a recent rainy day, more than 400 sex offenders, gang members and other inmates at the federal prison in this West Texas town weathered the storm by crowding into a three-story building.
Two guards were on duty. One was a uniformed correctional officer, the other a health worker in civilian clothes pitching in because there were not enough regular officers.
Outside, along the security fences surrounding the sprawling prison campus, a worker who normally offers counseling to inmates patrolled in a vehicle, armed with three weapons. And in a unit reserved for the most dangerous inmates, a clerk from the commissary policed the corridors.
The staffing scramble at Big Spring is playing out at federal prisons across the country. As the Trump administration has curtailed hiring in its quest to reduce the size of the government, some prisons are so pressed for guards that they regularly compel teachers, nurses, secretaries and other support staff to step in.
It was not uncommon in the past for prisons to occasionally call upon support workers as substitute guards, especially in emergencies. The practice, which leaves other prison functions short-handed, came under criticism during the Obama administration, which moved in its final year to cut back.
But as the shortage of correctional officers has grown chronic under President Donald Trump — and the practice of drawing upon other workers has become routine — many prisons have been operating in a perpetual state of staffing turmoil, leaving some workers feeling ill-equipped and unsafe on the job, according to interviews and internal documents from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Dozens of workers from prisons across the country said inmates had become more brazen with staff members and more violent with one another. At a prison in West Virginia, violent incidents increased almost 15 percent in 2017 from the year before, according to data obtained by The New York Times. Workers blame the problems on their depleted numbers and the need to push often inexperienced staff members into front-line correctional roles, changes not lost on the prison population.
“When you’re an officer and in the units for eight hours a day, you get to know the inmates,” said a teacher at a Florida prison who was not authorized to speak to the news media. “You can tell when a fight is about to happen. I don’t have that background.” The teacher added: “The inmates see this and they know we are outnumbered. They know we have people working in the units who don’t have the slightest idea what to do.”
Support staff members typically receive only a few weeks’ training in correctional work and, while required under their contracts to serve as substitutes, are often uncomfortable in the roles. Even workers who previously held correctional positions said the cutbacks were unsettling because fewer colleagues were on hand to provide backup when things turned ugly.
“A big fear people have is, if I get assaulted, who is going to come help me?” said Serene Gregg, an employees union official at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in the New York borough of Manhattan. A former correctional officer, she recently became a case manager, a job that involves providing counseling and serving as a liaison between inmates and the court system.
According to the bureau, assaults on prison staff rose more than 8 percent last year from the previous year.
There are also concerns about the growing amount of contraband getting past depleted prison staffs. In Big Spring, people have walked up to the double security fence in broad daylight, with no guard in sight, and tossed drugs, cellphones or other items to inmates. Sometimes staff members find out only because the contraband has not cleared both fences and is marooned in between.
Prison workers fret most about cellphones, which are banned because they allow inmates to attempt crimes. Big Spring has issued bulletin after bulletin to workers about the growing presence of cellphones, which can fetch as much as $1,500 inside the prison, according to documents reviewed by The Times. One officer found a cellphone hidden at the bottom of a water jug; another found a charger concealed in a wall next to an inmate’s bunk.
This year, prison workers have recovered over 200 cellphones in secure areas of Big Spring, according to data obtained by The Times. Last year, they found 69; in 2016, only one.
“Everyone heard about that first cellphone,” said Curtis Lloyd, a counselor at the prison. “Now it’s like it’s raining cellphones.”
The Times interviewed about 60 employees of the Bureau of Prisons, some of whom, like Lloyd and Gregg, were able to speak openly because they are protected by their status as officials in the prison employees’ union. The bureau did not authorize them to talk, and many other workers who spoke to The Times requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
The Bureau of Prisons provided some information, but declined an interview request and, in response to a detailed list of facts in this article, said it had no comment. Big Spring allowed a reporter to tour its facilities, but declined a request to interview its warden and said it forwarded other questions to bureau headquarters. The other prisons named in this article did not respond to requests to interview their wardens.
In April, Big Spring prison was notified by the Department of Homeland Security that a man who had been caught smuggling people across the border from Mexico had been texting by cellphone with an inmate, according to government documents reviewed by The Times. The texts suggested that the inmate, who has a history of illegally transporting immigrants across the border, might have been involved in the smuggling operation.
Workers at the prison were dismayed to hear talk of the incident. “My jaw dropped,” said Paula Chavez, a teacher and union official at the prison whose son, a correctional officer, was beaten by inmates in May, she said, when he tried to confiscate a cellphone.
Chavez said she voted for Trump but questioned his administration’s approach to prison staffing. “By weakening prisons,” she said of the president, “he is weakening the border.”
More Prisoners, Fewer Guards
Although staffing shortages existed before Trump took office, a governmentwide hiring freeze just four days into his administration pushed the bureau’s employment into a downward spiral.
The freeze was lifted elsewhere in April 2017, but it stayed in place at the bureau for several more months. From December 2016 to March 2018, the number of correctional officer vacancies, including supervisory roles, grew by almost 64 percent, to 2,137 from 1,306, according to the bureau — nearly 12 percent of all correctional officer positions.
In the last two years of the Obama administration, the bureau increased the number of correctional officers it hired, with 2,644 in 2016. Last year, the number dropped to 372. The administration has also begun eliminating about 5,000 unfilled jobs within the bureau, including about 1,500 correctional positions.
Cuts are occurring even though Congress increased the bureau’s budget for salaries and expenses by $106 million this year, and Republican and Democratic lawmakers have called for hiring more correctional officers. As of March, there were 15,927 officers in federal prisons.
Because the bureau is focused on eliminating vacant positions, a press officer said, the cuts “will not have a negative impact on public safety or on our ability to maintain a safe environment for staff and inmates.”
During the last years of the Obama administration, the inmate population shrank as the Justice Department moved away from mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses, a change that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has since reversed.
The bureau expects the inmate population to grow by 2 percent this year and 1 percent next year. The Trump administration is also temporarily transferring at least 1,600 immigration detainees to prisons.
There are three main ways federal prisons address the problem of too few correctional officers: They temporarily push other workers into correctional roles, they require officers to work overtime or they leave posts vacant.
Documents and interviews with prison workers from seven federal facilities show that correctional posts have regularly gone unstaffed for entire shifts.
On at least eight occasions between June 29 and July 4 last year, for example, correctional posts in housing units went unassigned at the prison in Victorville, California, documents show.
In New York, the Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, is locked up in the most secure wing of the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where he awaits trial, accused in the murder of thousands.
When Guzmán, who twice escaped from Mexican prisons, was transferred to Manhattan in 2017, the number of workers in the wing, which can house about a half-dozen inmates, was increased to at least four people, including two correctional officers, according to three people with knowledge of the arrangement.
But since early this year, they said, the wing has been routinely staffed by two people because of shortages. One is an officer — and sometimes that role is filled by support staff.
The prison union says posts are left vacant to avoid overtime. But there are also complaints in some prisons about excessive reliance on overtime.
Some correctional officers, who generally work eight-hour shifts, said they had been instructed to stay for a second shift, sometimes with only a few minutes’ notice. Some who refused were threatened with disciplinary action, including suspensions. In some instances, workers said, they got five or six hours of sleep before returning for another 16 hours of work.
Exhausted, some officers said the only way to avoid the demands was to call in sick. When that happens, some prisons require other workers to fill the gap.
‘I Felt Extremely Useless’
In July 2016, Thomas Kane, acting director of the prison bureau under President Barack Obama, sent a memo to every warden in the country.
“It has long been the position of this agency that while all institutional staff are ‘correctional workers first,’ non-custody staff should not be asked to fill correctional officer posts on a routine basis,” he wrote.
The practice, known as augmentation, was intended for use during emergencies or officer training, he said. USA Today had reported that spring that the bureau had pressed medical personnel into security duty. This February, the newspaper reported that at some prisons the practice accelerated under Obama and Trump.
Mark Inch, who was the bureau’s director until he quit in May, described augmentation in a memo as an important mechanism to operate safely and efficiently. The bureau told The Times it did not have data on the practice, but in a congressional hearing in April, Sessions suggested it was used sparingly.
“I mean, you would have to hire an entirely new guard for one person to spend two hours through the lunchroom helping keep an eye on things,” Sessions told a Senate committee.
Documents and interviews with prison workers suggest otherwise. Many prisons have increasingly turned to augmentation, and not for isolated two-hour bursts.
The trend is evident in a slice of comparative data obtained by The Times. At the Coleman prison complex in Sumterville, Florida, augmentation hours more than quadrupled to about 9,450 hours in the first three months of this year from about 2,140 hours in the same period 2017, according to the data.
At some prisons, pregnant correctional officers are required to work unless they provide a doctor’s excuse. So, in some instances, other pregnant workers have been pulled into guard duty.
A case manager in Victorville, California, who was five months pregnant was assigned a week of guard duty in a dangerous unit. Although she had previously worked as a correctional officer, she said she feared getting kicked or punched.
When an inmate refused to return to his cell, she said, her colleagues told her to stand down for her own safety.
“They said, ‘Look, if anything happens, you go in the opposite direction,’” she said. “I felt extremely useless.”
Trade-Offs in Safety and Rehabilitation
A female secretary assigned to work a correctional post at the Sheridan prison in Oregon found suspicious paper on an inmate. When she asked if it contained drugs, the inmate, towering a foot above her, grabbed her hands and would not let go, according to interviews and documents.
The inmate was caught and taken to the special housing unit, where he was ordered to strip. In the insole of one of his sneakers was a sharp metal shank.
“I hate to think what might have happened if he had been able to get to his shoe,” said Travis Ray, an officer who was working in the unit.
Ray, a union official, and other prison workers also noted that the practice of putting support staff in correctional roles means they are not doing their regular work.
Ray Coleman, a teacher and union official at a prison in Tallahassee, Florida, said that when a teacher is pulled into correctional duty, as many as five classes a day can be canceled, interfering with inmates’ rehabilitation.
At the Tallahassee facility, the number of inmates earning high school equivalency credentials dropped by nearly 60 percent from fiscal year 2016 to 2017, according to bureau documents, mirroring a decline in prisons across the country. Some prisons have fared worse. At the Coleman complex in Florida, the number plummeted to 7 last year from 161 in 2016.
Workers said it had also become more difficult to punish infractions against inmates, especially minor ones, in part because incident reports were ignored or destroyed by overstretched managers. In the face of lax enforcement, inmates seem emboldened, they said.
Last year the Hazelton prison in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia, had 275 violent incidents, including fights among inmates and major assaults on staff, an almost 15 percent increase from 2016, records show. An inmate was recently killed during a fight.
At the Lee penitentiary in Pennington Gap, Virginia, Brian Shoemaker, a correctional officer and union official, said inmates had become increasingly violent as staffing had dwindled, and lockdowns had skyrocketed as a result. In 2016, the prison was locked down for 69 days, he said. So far this year, it has been locked down for more than 70 days.
Workers at Coleman also complained about frequent lockdowns. One morning in March, they heard a call over the radio, requesting a stretcher. An officer had fallen during a tussle with inmates and his leg had snapped, sending bone through skin.
Three people at the scene estimated that as many as 20 inmates were involved in the fight. Some had homemade weapons. But because of short-staffing, only a small number of workers responded. And many of them were filling in for correctional officers.
“It was eerie,” said Jose Rojas, a teacher and union official at the prison who was at the scene. “There was so little staff.”
A maintenance worker here at Big Spring, who has stepped in to replace correctional officers as often as twice a week, said the current approach was not sustainable.
“People are going to get hurt,” said the worker, who was not authorized to speak to the media, “all because they want to save a little money.”