WASHINGTON ― Throughout the presidential campaign, Donald Trump described himself as the “law and order candidate” and promised he’d have law enforcement officers’ backs. But nearly a year and a half into the Trump presidency, officers in one of the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agencies say they feel abandoned by the administration, which has made cutbacks to the federal Bureau of Prisons that they say put their lives at risk.
“A lot of our staff and officers inside of federal prisons did vote for Mr. Trump. He spoke very highly of law enforcement and said he would support us,” said Darrell Palmer, a union official who represents BOP employees at 19 facilities in the Northeast. “But I’ve been doing this 28 years, and I ain’t never seen nothing like this.”
A hiring freeze imposed by the administration at the start of Trump’s term has left BOP severely short-staffed, just as the administration’s law enforcement policies have begun to increase its workload. The bureau is one of the largest prison systems in the world’s most incarcerated nation, and it currently houses 155,000 of the nation’s nearly 184,000 federal inmates. Federal prisons have suffered from overcrowding for years, but a drop in the federal prison population toward the end of the Obama administration made it seem as though a path to sustainability was within sight, officials say. Instead, Trump’s federal hiring freeze left the prison bureau unable to fill vacancies.
Now many facilities operate on a skeleton crew, BOP employees say. Health workers, secretaries and teachers at the facilities report regularly being pressed into guard duty. And it’s just a matter of time until the crisis will start claiming lives, said Kristan Morgan, a nurse practitioner at a low-security facility in Tallahassee, Florida, at a recent news conference.
″My reality is that it’s not if but when. When will the inmates realize that they outnumber a nurse working as a novice officer 150-to-1? When will I have to call for assistance from the depleted ranks that exist due to hiring freezes and budget cuts? How many will come? How long will it take?” Morgan asked. “Am I next to be kidnapped? Raped? Murdered? All in the name of doing more with less?”
Officials say the crisis has already taken a toll. One example: A secretary at a federal facility in Colorado was sexually assaulted recently while on guard duty.
“She thought she was going to work on [budget and procurement] detail. She wound up getting sexually assaulted in the way of masturbatory product being thrown in her face,” said Kenneth Juhasz, a union official. “No one should be put in that situation. That’s not what she signed up for.”
“The morale is pathetic within the federal Bureau of Prisons,” Juhasz added. “There’s a breaking point right now, and we’re at that point where the bough breaks. You can’t push any group of people that hard, that fast and for that long and expect them to maintain their composure.”
Eric Young, the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ Council of Prison Locals, now prays before he looks at his phone every morning, worried he’ll receive a message from BOP’s director notifying him of a staff death.
Young estimates that around two-thirds of his union members were Trump supporters. That makes sense: It’s a law enforcement agency that leans white and male (72 percent male, 62 percent white), and many federal prisons are in rural parts of the country, which Trump dominated. But Young said many of his Trump-supporting members are “quite upset” with what they’ve seen at the prison bureau.
BOP has long suffered the kind of problems you’d expect for a massive bureaucracy centered on caging tens of thousands of people. The federal population skyrocketed from less than 25,000 in 1980 to nearly 222,000 by 2013. A bipartisan, congressionally mandated report on federal prisons issued in 2016 said the system was in a state of crisis and called for massive changes to the nation’s sentencing policies in order to relieve the strain. Unsurprisingly in an election year, wide changes weren’t implemented. Still, Barack Obama, because of moderate changes in sentencing and prosecutions, became the first president since Jimmy Carter to leave office with a smaller federal prison population than when he became president.
The Trump administration says its budget cuts reflect that drop in the prison population. Justice Department official Lee Loftus told reporters during a February briefing on the administration’s budget proposal that the department was looking to eliminate two of the Bureau of Prisons’ six regional offices as well as minimum security prisons. The administration is also eliminating open positions within the bureau ― even though Congress authorized an increase in BOP’s salaries and expense budget.
“Because of the declining population, you are going to see some adjustments in the staff,” Loftus said in February.
Yet, with the Trump administration implementing harsher sentencing and charging policies, BOP is anticipating its population will expand in the coming years. And it has already seen an uptick.
Some already overstretched federal prisons in recent months have been tasked with receiving immigration detainees. Around 1,000 immigration detainees were recently sent to the federal complex in Victorville, California, overwhelming the thin staff there. Employees at the facility have warned that inadequate medical staffing is putting lives at risk, and several told HuffPost they see a riot on the horizon if nothing changes.
“If you’re going to stand behind mandatory minimum prison sentences, if you’re going to stand behind prosecuting harsher sentences, if you’re going to stand behind prosecuting every offender that actually crossed the border, you need to fund our prisons, period,” Young said.
There have been a number of obvious signs of stress within the bureau: Former Acting Director Mark Inch ― a retired Army major general who took the helm in August 2017 ― resigned in May, reportedly upset over being cut out of major decisions on staffing, budgets and policy.
Palmer, who has been with the prison bureau since 1990 and now works as a prison counselor, said dealing with the recent shortages has been a “psychological nightmare” for staffers. The stress of the job weighs heavily upon corrections officers ― an officer at one of his facilities died by suicide last month, he said ― and he said he’s seen the retirement rate skyrocket.
The Bureau of Prisons did not provide comment on staffing issues. And the agency hasn’t indicated any changes since a New York Times story brought some of the staffing shortages to national attention last month.
Some BOP employees worry the budget cuts are part of an administration plan to expand the privatization of federal incarceration. A 2016 report by the Justice Department’s internal watchdog found that privately run facilities were more dangerous than federally run prisons and needed more oversight. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed Obama-era restrictions on the Justice Department’s use of private prisons early on in the Trump administration.
“I feel that the administration is setting our agency up for failure. As violence and recidivism rises, our staff struggles to meet accreditation requirements, and we will be blamed for these failures,” Brian Shoemaker, who works at a U.S. penitentiary in Lee, Virginia, said in a statement. “Then, the Administration will point to this as an excuse to contract out our law enforcement role to the private prison industry.”
Motive aside, federal prison employees say the Trump administration’s policies have severely weakened the force. Though union officials maintain that a federal prison job is still a pathway to a decent salary and solid benefits, Palmer and Young said that they couldn’t in good conscience recommend a career with the bureau at the moment.
“The Bureau of Prisons would be the last place I’d look for employment right now because of what’s currently going on,” Palmer told HuffPost. “It’s totally uncalled for to put staff in danger the way they are.”
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Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter covering the Justice Department, federal law enforcement, criminal justice and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Signal at 202-527-9261.