When Kristan Morgan joined the U.S. Bureau of Prisons three years ago, the nurse expected to care for the chronically sick in the nation’s largest correctional system. She was abruptly plucked from a busy medical unit in Tallahassee to pull guard duty in cell blocks, USA Today reports. “We get a radio and set of keys, and we don’t know which keys fit which doors,” said Morgan, 30. Hundreds of secretaries, teachers, counselors, cooks and medical staffers were tapped last year to fill guard posts in federal prisons because of acute officer shortages and overtime limits.
The moves were made despite repeated warnings that the assignments placed unprepared employees at risk. The practice has continued for years even though the agency has been rebuked by Congress and federal labor arbitrators. “It puts inmate safety at risk and our own security at risk. When we play officer, we are not equipped,” said Morgan. “We are not familiar with the housing units. The inmates know exactly who we are and what our limitations are.” A House panel directed the agency in July to “curtail its over-reliance” on the extraordinary deployments known as augmentation, once reserved only for emergency operations. Instead, the practice has become commonplace at some institutions where even some plumbers, electrical workers, budget analysts and commissary staffers have been patrolling prison yards and filling officer vacancies in maximum-security units. Laurie Robinson, a former assistant attorney general who was part of a task force that examined the federal prison system in 2015, said the safety and security of inmates “requires making sure that the people are trained for the duties that they are carrying out.” She said, “For this (civilian reassignments) to be occurring as a matter of course is not a good thing. This goes against sound corrections practice.”