50% CO vacancy rate at Wash. federal prison
SeaTac federal detention center has 53 officers available to oversee 800 inmates
By Nina Shapiro
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — Frank Coluccio had two hours of his shift to go at the federal detention center in SeaTac when he was given the news: “You’re being mandatoried.”
That meant another eight hours of mandatory overtime, putting him at work from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. “I didn’t bring enough food,” he said. Luckily, his friend, a lieutenant, bought him dinner.
Coluccio, an electronic technician, was overseeing a unit that day last February as part of an annual training. He’s not normally mandated to work a second shift. But the long days are a routine occurrence for the facility’s correctional officers.
The detention center, which holds people facing federal criminal trials as well as some already sentenced, is severely short-staffed. It has a 27% vacancy rate for all positions, including case managers, medical providers, maintenance workers and teachers in a GED program.
The vacancy rate is much higher, 50%, for correctional officers. Authorized for 105 officers, the detention center had just 53 as of mid-December, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
Even fewer may be available to oversee units housing the roughly 800 people currently incarcerated there. Some officers are on leave or don’t hold custodial posts, according to officials at the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1102 , which represents detention center workers.
They put the number of people who can oversee units at about 45 and say the situation is dangerous, in part because officers are exhausted from double shifts as often as three or four times a week. “Nothing bad has happened yet,” said Adam Cunningham, the union’s treasurer. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Donald Murphy said in an email that the agency makes “every effort to ensure the physical safety of the individuals confined to our facilities,” and temporarily assigned 88 staffers from other institutions to the SeaTac facility over the last year.
Murphy also said the detention center’s staffing “remains one of the agency’s top priorities.”
Those incarcerated there — including an increasing number of people serving sentences, according to those familiar with its operations — are also affected. Medical unit vacancies have resulted in delayed treatment, said regional Federal Public Defender Colin Fieman, and other programs and services suffer when employees who keep them running are pulled away to fill in for missing staff.
To some extent, the institution’s woes reflect a staffing problem throughout the federal prison system and the correctional field in general. Many people left jail and prison jobs during the pandemic’s “great resignation,” a trend exacerbated in correctional institutions by a heightened risk of exposure to the coronavirus and burnout from extra work involved in mitigating that risk.
King County’s adult and juvenile corrections facilities had 113 vacancies in October, according to a Seattle Times op-ed by County Executive Dow Constantine. The state Department of Corrections has about the same number of people working in its prisons as before the pandemic but is plagued by absenteeism, according to a spokesperson.
The federal system has tried to deal with its staffing problems through a marketing campaign, offering a 25% signing bonus for new hires and 25% retention bonus after a year. Both bonuses went into effect over the past year.
Progress has been made, according to the Bureau of Prisons, but the SeaTac facility lags behind.
Employees say salaries, despite the bonuses and a regional cost of living adjustment, are a big reason why. SeaTac correctional officers earn between $51,700 and $78,600, not including overtime pay or bonuses, which union officials point out are not indefinitely guaranteed. In comparison, King County corrections officers earn between $73,000 and $97,400 and are eligible for hiring bonuses of up to $25,000.
Some SeaTac officers are leaving for other agencies or different lines of work, said correctional officer and union steward Joe Kimmet. Morale has plummeted.
Mandatory overtime, sometimes assigned as little as 30 minutes in advance, requires officers to cancel plans, reschedule medical appointments and quickly arrange child care, he said. The extra shifts don’t necessarily come right after their regular ones, and some officers with long drives home get only four or five hours of sleep before having to return to work.
Teachers, case managers and other support staff aren’t subject to mandatory overtime but are regularly called upon to stand in for officers.
“It is important to note staff assigned to our institutions are professional law enforcement officers first, regardless of their occupations,” said Murphy, the Bureau of Prisons spokesperson, adding all are trained accordingly.
But the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General has repeatedly raised concerns about this practice because, according to a report this past March, “it often places program staff into critical security positions and interferes with BOP’s ability to ensure the safety of its staff and inmates, as well as its ability to provide inmate programs.”
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D- Bellevue, also raised safety concerns about the practice, in addition to general understaffing, in a 2022 letter to the SeaTac institution’s then-warden.
The reassignment of support staff means GED classes may be canceled, the law library could temporarily close and case managers are less available to provide counseling and help develop release plans.
In some cases, this interferes with access to justice for those in custody, said Fieman, the public defender. Their only place to privately view digital legal documents is the law library, for example.
His office’s lawyers have also had trouble getting in to see clients at the detention center because of a constant shuffle of duties among staff, leaving those at the front desk unfamiliar with the procedures, he said.
Another big issue has been medical care. “We went through an 18-month period where clients were just experiencing neglect,” Fieman said, citing long delays for appointments, prescriptions and hospital transfers.
His office has sometimes sought emergency court motions to get clients treatment.
Fieman doesn’t blame detention center officials, whom he said are doing the best they can to cope. Some things have also recently improved, he said: His office’s clients have been getting medications more quickly after administrators started FedExing them from another facility.
Still, Fieman said, that is a stopgap measure.
Ili Meaole, the union’s immediate past president, said she knows of no long-term solutions on the horizon. Administrators proposed staffing the day shift entirely with support employees, leaving correctional officers to work the rest of the time, but the union’s objections killed that idea, she said.
The union has called for a reduction in the incarcerated population, but that hasn’t happened. Meaole expects more talks with management in the new year.
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