There’s a situation unfolding at some of the nation’s largest and highest-population prisons. Everyday people, including teachers and secretaries, are serving as impromptu prison guards and officers, sometimes for days or weeks. Prisons seem to be losing the ability to find qualified staff, leaving places like Metropolitan Correctional Center, one of the most dangerous prisons in America, scrambling for staff to keep their populations under control.
• The current staffing problem isn’t caused by any one factor. A hiring freeze early in the Trump administration, a sudden and sharp increase in the number of prisoners, and fears about officer safety while on duty all contribute to the low availability of qualified staff.
• Prisons across America have always relied upon casual staff, like teachers and secretaries, to fill small gaps in coverage. But now, teachers, nurses, secretaries, therapists, and even commissary clerks are filling in on a regular basis, not to give officers relief, but because there just isn’t anyone else.
• Frighteningly, documents from the Bureau of Prisons show that many of these casual workers receive just a few short days or weeks of training. They reportedly feel “ill-equipped” to properly serve in the role, and claim inmates take advantage of the weakness to manipulate and cause chaos.
• Statistics certainly seem to reflect this as true. In areas like Virginia, violent incidents have shot up by nearly 15 percent. Other prisons, including Big Spring, are finding more contraband – including cell phones used to run criminal businesses inside and outside of the prison.
• In at least one case, an inmate in Big Spring who successfully hid a cellphone from staff, who were largely casual fill-in workers, was able to successfully network with human traffickers in Mexico to smuggle people across the border.
• Big Spring also allegedly has had problems with outsiders simply walking up to the double security fence and tossing items (including drugs and cellphones) in. Most of the contraband goes unnoticed unless the throw is short and it doesn’t clear the second inner fence.
• Both prison officers and casual prison workers seem fearful to speak out about the growing safety issues. Some have spoken with the press only on a guarantee of anonymity, citing fears of retaliation from prison administration.
• With immigration detainees and low-level drug crimes now sending more people than ever into prisons around the country, this concern is growing. Most conservative estimates show at least a 2 percent increase in population for most prisons each year. Higher populations will put stress on already-struggling prison staff rosters, further raising risks.