Federal prisons across the United States have been forced to utilize cooks, nurses and teachers to guard inmates amid a shortage of federal correctional officers, according to a report by The Associated Press.
The AP found that nearly one-third of correctional officer jobs are vacant, resulting in increased fights, inmate escapes and homicides in the most understaffed prisons.
While the Justice Department budgeted for over 20,000 full-time correctional officer roles last year, federal prisons only employ 13,762 officers, the AP noted.
The Bureau of Prisons told the AP that the decision for other staff members to stand in for guards depends on the needs of a facility and may occur “during irregular periods such as a pandemic."
Due to the pandemic, the Bureau of Prisons's staffing concerns have reached a breaking point, the AP reported, with nearly 7,000 employees contracting the coronavirus and four staff members and 235 inmates succumbing to the virus.
“You can’t do programming, you can’t have safety, you can’t have a lot of things that make prisons operate without proper staffing,” Kevin Ring, the president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told the AP.
An Illinois prison reportedly exemplified the strain the pandemic has had on prison staffing, with some employees working nearly 60 hours of overtime a week. In a California facility, a fight broke out among inmates shortly after a teacher was sent to serve as a correctional officer.
The Bureau of Prisons told the AP that all employees are trained as correctional workers even if they hold another position or job title.
“This is not a new practice,” the agency said in a statement. “It is important to note that staff assigned to our institutions are professional law enforcement officers first, regardless of their occupation. All staff are trained accordingly and are expected to perform law enforcement functions during routine and non-routine situations.”