The federal Bureau of Prisons announced plans last week to eliminate more than 300 vacant employee positions at five prisons in Kentucky, sparking criticism from a Kentucky congressman and union officials who said the cuts put the lives of guards and prisoners in danger.
The bureau plans to eliminate about 6,000 unfilled jobs nationally, and told facility administrators to prepare to eliminate 12 to 14 percent of their authorized staffing levels.
Critics said the cuts will strain the resources of already understaffed prisons where one guard may, at times, oversee hundreds of inmates.
“They force us to respond to emergencies, putting our lives in peril, in low staffing levels,” said Eric Young, national president of the Council of Prison Locals, a union that represents federal prison employees.
The Bureau of Prisons said in a statement to the Herald-Leader that it does not plan to lay off any employees currently working in Kentucky, and that eliminating vacant positions will not put anyone in danger.
The bureau, according to union officials, justified the cuts by saying it was acting in response to President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which would eliminate about 6,000 bureau positions, and at the request of the federal Department of Justice.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, said the bureau should not have made the decision to cut positions before the federal government approved its final budget.
He said both the U.S. House and Senate budgets for fiscal year 2018 will likely increase the Bureau of Prisons’ allotment for salaries and expenses by more than $60 million.
“Hundreds of Eastern Kentuckians are employed at these facilities, and their safety is my main concern,” Rogers said. “The reality is the overcrowding rate at high security prisons remains high.”
Rogers said correction officers have reached out to him with concerns about the cuts, and he plans to meet with the Bureau of Prisons director next week.
The cuts affect five Kentucky prisons, including 88 positions at the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, said Robin Goode, the president of the Lexington chapter of the Council of Prison Locals union. Other proposed cuts in Kentucky, according to Goode, include 61 positions in Inez, 62 in Pine Knot, 44 in Manchester and 52 in Ashland.
Many of the positions have been vacant since 2016, leaving prison staff to make up the slack through a process called “augmentation,” in which other employees, including nurses and secretaries, take on the responsibility of overseeing inmates.
While all employees are trained to oversee inmates, union officials said secretaries and others may not know the ins-and-outs of each individual prison or prisoner.
“That’s dangerous,” Goode said. “It’s a lack of respect for law enforcement officers.”
The order comes as a leaked memo shows the Bureau of Prisons ordered its facilities to submit some inmates for transfer to private prisons “to alleviate the overcrowding at Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) institutions and to maximize the effectiveness of the private contracts.” The memo was sent by Frank Lee, an assistant director of the bureau, and published by Government Executive in January.
Goode said the bureau has not been clear about why it is acceptable to eliminate vacancies when the memo admits to overcrowding.
Union representatives said many federal prisons operate at staffing levels of 85 to 92 percent, and that the bureau’s move to cut vacant positions would effectively make this the expected norm.
“We’re in here every day behind this fence not knowing if you’re going to come home at night,” said Billy Parks, the legislative coordinator of the Lexington chapter of the Council of Prison Locals. “I think we’ve given enough.”
State Rep. Chris Harris, D-Forest Hills, said the potential loss of potential is especially troublesome in Eastern Kentucky, where four of the five Kentucky prisons expecting cuts are located.
“I’m not entirely sure, particularly in the criminal justice system, where you can afford to cut 14 percent,” Harris said. “When you start cutting you’re putting not only the safety of the employees but you’re also putting the safety of the public at risk.”