Nearly one-third of federal correctional officer jobs in the United States are vacant, forcing prisons to use cooks, teachers, nurses and other workers to guard inmates, reports the Associated Press. The Justice Department budgeted for 20,446 full-time correctional officer positions in 2020, but the agency that runs federal prisons said it currently employs 13,762 officers. The Bureau of Prisons insists that many of its facilities still have a full complement of officers who focus solely on maintaining order.
Overworked employees are burning out quickly and violent encounters are being reported on a near-daily basis. The expanded use of that practice, known as augmentation, is raising questions about whether the agency can carry out its required duties to ensure the safety of prisoners and staff members while also putting in place programs and classes such as those under the First Step Act, a criminal justice overhaul that received wide bipartisan support in Congress. The bureau insists everyone working at its facilities is a trained, sworn correctional worker, regardless of position or job title. All 35,000 employees are told when they are hired that they should expect to perform law enforcement functions, the agency said, even if they are signing on as counselors or teachers. The situation could become even more dire as federal prisons brace for an influx of inmates. Right now there are 152,376 prisoners in 122 facilities.