Calif. prison sent back $3M while union raised equipment concerns

Despite repeated appeals to executives, union officials say they've been consistently told the cash isn't there

By Shea Johnson
Daily Press

VICTORVILLE, Calif. — In the past two fiscal years, the Bureau of Prisons returned to the BOP's Western Regional Office more than $3 million, or roughly 4.7 percent, of operational funding allotted for the Federal Correctional Complex in this city.

Meanwhile, union officials at the prison complex have raised concerns over outdated and needed equipment that they say — coupled with staff shortages — are threatening inside security and community safety.

Years-old ballistic vests, lacking medical apparatus, vehicles with bald tires and antiquated cameras and monitors are some of the core issues to which union leaders point. But despite repeated appeals to executives, they say they've been consistently told: The cash isn't there.

"We have minimal checkpoints at the prison, because we can't afford metal detectors," said John Kostelnik, president for the local prison workers union, describing another cause for concern. "We should have a metal detector at every single unit at the federal correctional institutions and we don't. Why? Because they said we don't have the money.

"Apparently, we did."

In fiscal year 2016, $2.3 million was sent back. Last fiscal year, which ended June 30, another $719,000 was returned.

The details were revealed by Mary M. Mitchell, the regional director for the Western Region, in a letter to Rep. Paul Cook on Oct. 18. It was in response to Cook's Congressional inquiry a month earlier seeking a slew of financial information about the complex after employees had brought unease over staffing levels to his Apple Valley district office.

Mitchell said the returned allocation was due to a number of factors including adjustments based on a decrease in inmate population; unused funding to outside medical and dedicated cost centers, such as uniform allowance and Advanced Occupational Education; and realignments to contribute to overtime deficits, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Daily Press.

The BOP did not respond to a series of questions sent Feb. 8 or more recent follow-ups requesting clarification on its general policy in returning funds and whether it had considered the union's heeding about equipment before sending back money that presumably could have been spent on such upgrades.

Ballistic vests, for instance, were so out of date that many used by FCC Victorville's some-1,000 employees were manufactured in 2003 despite having a five-year shelf life, according to Kostelnik.

It could present a seemingly precarious situation for guards and the public, he said, particularly when an inmate is transferred to a local hospital and the two officers accompanying him have potentially sub-par safety equipment.

"It becomes an even bigger problem when it's a high-profile inmate," said Jesus Amezcua, union treasurer. "So now you need additional staff to escort, making it three staff members. And if these guys have such an influence ... somebody's going to want to break them out."

FCC Victorville, with about 400 correctional officers, consists of the high-security U.S. Penitentiary, two medium-security institutions and a minimum-security satellite camp. The compound held just under 3,800 total inmates so far this year, according to recent data reviewed by this newspaper.

The inmate population there has steadily declined since 2012, when there were more than 5,400, yet Kostelnik suggested those who remained were some of "the worst of the worst," including influential gang leaders, terrorists and child molesters — a far cry from the perception that federal prison is mostly for white-collar criminals.

Earlier this week, USA Today reported on civilian staffers filling in for guards amid staff shortages at federal prisons nationwide — a practice known as augmentation.

Prison officials told USA today that all employees were viewed as "correctional workers first" and provided basic officer training as a condition of employment. But the publication noted that "few civilians have been required to put that training into practice before they are tapped to plug security gaps."

FCC Victorville hasn't been able to side-step augmentation either, according to Kostelnik. The practice was acknowledged by management there during a Nov. 30 labor relations meeting, according to a copy of minutes reviewed by this newspaper.

"It's absurd," Kostelnik said. "It's absurd the things that are going on."

Kostelnik said union leaders were previously told unused dollars are transferred to other federal prisons in need. In situations where the complex here had gone above budget, they were then informed the funds to cover shortfalls, similarly, had to be taken from another facility.

One shortfall occurred during fiscal year 2016, according to the letter, when an extra $5.5 million was added to the $101.8 million base salary allotment at FCC Victorville to cover deficits in salaries and overtime, which Kostelnik argued should be viewed as a signal of inadequate staffing.

He concluded that workers were performing at their best despite the conveyed hurdles, including recent cuts.

In response to recent vacant position eliminations at BOP facilities, which also struck Victorville, BOP officials assured late last month it would not negatively impact public safety.

On the idea that the proposed Justice Department budget could decrease more staffing, a spokesperson had said only, if enacted, "the BOP will work with DOJ to effect such changes."

©2018 Daily Press, Victorville, Calif.

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