'A plea for help': Understaffing, bureaucratic red tape is making FDC Miami unsafe, union says

The federal government says one officer per 125 inmates is sufficient at the pre-trial detention center; those on the ground say otherwise

By Sarah Sinning

MIAMI, Fla. — "You need to wait until the end of your shift."

That's what a rookie correctional officer at the Federal Detention Center in Miami was told after he had been stabbed five times by an inmate and needed to be medically evaluated, the union representing staff at the facility explained in an interview with Corrections1 last week. 

Protesters in the death of George Floyd march past the Federal Detention Center in Miami. AFGE Local 501 officials are making details about dire working conditions at the facility public in the hope of garnering support to spark change.
Protesters in the death of George Floyd march past the Federal Detention Center in Miami. AFGE Local 501 officials are making details about dire working conditions at the facility public in the hope of garnering support to spark change. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

According to Executive Vice President Ortiz, AFGE Local 501 CPL-33, the officer was the sole CO working inside a housing unit with nearly 120 inmates, and even though the inmate's homemade weapon made it through the officer's protective vest twice, it was assumed that the officer could carry out the rest of his shift.

The officer was even offered voluntary overtime later in the day, Ortiz said.

Eric Speirs, the union's president, however, emphasized the gravity of the attack in a recent interview with Forbes: “If he had not been wearing a vest, we would be dealing with a homicide.”

To be fair, the officer didn't recognize he had been wounded in the immediate aftermath of the attack, but according to the union, an inmate in the same situation would have been assessed immediately, no questions asked.

a larger trend

For both Ortiz and Speirs, this recent attack sums up a much larger trend at federal facilities across the country, one in which BOP's so-called "most valuable" assets - its frontline staff - are put at risk to keep costs low.

"It's all about saving money," Ortiz said.

Case in point: The officer who was stabbed had just ordered a pre-trial detainee facing a life sentence for homicide, and with known gang ties, to put on his facility-issued jumpsuit. The only problem, Ortiz said, is that the inmate didn't actually have one, an all-too-common occurrence in a facility increasingly plagued by shortages of clothing, mattresses, cleaning supplies and other "essential needs inmates are entitled to," Ortiz said. 

Deferred maintenance of the facility itself is likewise putting staff at risk. Getting stuck on malfunctioning elevators with offenders is a weekly, if not daily, occurrence, he said.

But this culture of bare minimum is most explicit when it comes to staffing. 

"A normal [federal] prison would have two officers per 130 inmates in a housing unit. FDC Miami has one officer per 125 inmates," the union explained in a recent press release

That's because the federal government deems these inmates to be lower risk than those at a penitentiary, Ortiz said. 

In reality, however, there is very little difference when it comes to officer safety. "This is also a facility that has housed terrorists, mobsters, and gang members," the union statement continued. "Since October 2019, there have been 27 assaults on staff by inmates, and nothing has been done about it."

The stabbing just a few weeks ago brings the total even higher.

understaffed, undertrained

As seen in federal facilities across the nation, even these staffing numbers cannot currently be met without increasing overtime and augmentation

[Related: Poll: How often have you been required to work mandatory OT in the past year?]

According to Ortiz, overtime is now being mandated up to four times per week, and five staff members a day are being pulled from other departments to fill in housing unit gaps. 

While BOP defends augmentation as a practice, taking the stance that "we're all correctional workers first," Ortiz said, using workers from departments like accounting instead of officers who work with offenders every day is "a recipe for disaster."

Even those workers who previously worked on housing units "are going in blind," he said. "You forget basic operations."

But according to the most recent staffing report shared with the union, BOP says FDC Miami is 90% staffed.

"They're clearly fluffing the numbers," Ortiz said. "I believe we're closer to 70%, if not lower."

While the facility may be that staffed on paper, Ortiz said, that estimate in no way takes into account the growing number of officers working limited light duty due to the pandemic or out on sick leave; many officers are simply using up PTO ahead of imminent retirements. 

"I know 10, 11 officers who are burning time right now," he said.

And then there are the staff members who are beginning to be censured for not complying with the federal government's vaccine mandate. 

In an effort to shore up staffing numbers, BOP is offering incentives to new hires to retain them for two years, but according to Ortiz, even those initiatives aren't helping. In fact, he says, they're likely making things worse.

Not only are current staff members not being offered retention incentives as has become common in understaffed facilities across the country, but many of these new staff members are also being hired in at higher pay grades than veteran officers, further damaging the morale of experienced staff.

According to Ortiz, human resources has been authorized to "offer them everything" in order to entice new workers.

And then, the union says, these new hires are not being adequately trained for the inherently dangerous work ahead. 

As Speirs pointed out in his Forbes interview, the rookie officer who was recently attacked had only been on the job for eight months and had yet to complete his full training protocol.

"It is not that he was new that bothers me as much as he had so little training,” Speirs said. "This guy had not even been to the training courses at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia.”

In a letter to U.S. Representative Frederica Wilson, Speirs explained further: “Our new personnel only receive two weeks of in-class training and three weeks hands-on at FLETC. Most state and county corrections [officers] receive six months of training. Officer [name withheld] was on the job for eight months and still had not been to FLETC. Some new employees have been working around 100+ of all security level inmates for two years without being to FLETC due to COVID-19 even though other federal law enforcement agencies continued training.”

'the danger is very real'

While the union acknowledges there are no easy fixes to the plights of staff at FDC Miami, Ortiz says that won't stop them from defending the officers and continuing to push for major changes to keep everyone in the facility safe. 

"We don't care if we cause waves," he said. 

But changes need to be made, and soon, he continued, or else someone is really going to get hurt. We don't want this to become a conversation about "how many more people have to die" before enough is enough, he said. "The danger is very real."

In addition to bringing on more, and better trained, staff, while also raising employee pay so that they're competitive with the area, Ortiz said, leadership needs to do a much better job of making officers feel like they really are the organization's most valuable assets. 

"There's so much potential in this building," he said. "Management just needs to be open to the idea of change."

"Consider this our plea for help," he said.

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