Nurses and teachers shouldn't be responsible for serving as prison guards

Nurses and teachers shouldn't be responsible for serving as prison guards
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“Next man up” is a phrase traditionally associated with the football field, but increasingly it’s echoing through the halls of our nation’s prisons. Through a process called “augmentation,” the Federal Bureau of Prisons routinely forces its noncustodial employees — think nurses, teachers, cooks and secretaries — to act as guards. Meant as a short-term salve to budgetary woes and staffing shortages, its regular use is likely to not only contribute to these same problems, but to endanger staff and prisoners. It also makes rehabilitation that much harder. 

Augmentation has become an increasingly familiar practice in our federal prisons since the Bureau of Prisons started a cost-cutting initiative in 2005, and it’s likely to get worse. Rather than heed recent congressional calls to hire more staff and reduce an already unsafe inmate-to-correctional-officer ratio, the Trump administration has eliminated 6,000 positions and announced it intends to cut thousands more. Pressed to fill “mission critical” positions at understaffed facilities, wardens will have no choice but to increase reliance on augmentation.

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The Bureau of Prisons justifies its use of augmentation by touting its philosophy that every employee is a “correctional worker first.” That may be true, but it also misses the point. It’s patently absurd to suggest that a teacher or a secretary, who may have received only a few weeks of training, can be thrown into a maximum-security housing unit holding murderers and gang members without any repercussions. This is a recipe for tragedy.

 

Augmentation pours gasoline on an already-combustible situation, raising the risk of violence against staff and inmates. Prison is a tightly-controlled environment, which means that inmates are attuned to staffing issues. As prison nurse Kristan Morgan observed, “The inmates know exactly who we are and what our limitations are.” Small surprise, then, that inmates have admitted to using augmentation-related staffing irregularities to facilitate assaults. Not only does transferring programmatic staff create the opportunity for violence, it increases inmates’ propensity for it by leaving them without programming to occupy what may otherwise be dangerously idle hands.

If not for the sake of their employees’ safety, or that of the inmates placed in their charge, the Bureau of Prisons should wean itself off augmentation to help its bottom line. Many non-custodial roles command higher pay than their custodial counterparts; a nurse practitioner makes for a rather expensive correctional officer. Additionally, there’s a real opportunity cost inherent to pulling non-custodians from their normal duties. Understaffed programs may struggle, and the Bureau’s return on investment will suffer. Especially for medical units, transferring staff even temporarily means that medical care is being deferred or neglected, which is likely to lead to higher medical bills later on. 

Creating a prison environment that trades productivity for hostility will further contribute to long-term prison costs by ensuring that prisoners remain incarcerated longer and return with greater frequency after release. In addition to the toll it takes on its victims, violent unrest leads to disciplinary sanctions and potential criminal charges that can extend a custodial term. Similarly, reducing educational and counseling resources hamstrings rehabilitation efforts by depriving inmates of some of the tools necessary to successfully stay out of prison upon release.

Just as augmentation may lead to prisoners returning to prison, it’s likely to push vital staff members away. It shouldn’t come as a shock that transferring staff on short notice out of their chosen professions and into potentially dangerous situations does not boost job satisfaction. With both Democrats and Republicans in Congress raising the alarm about augmentation’s detrimental impact on morale, it’s not hard to imagine prisons slipping into a vicious cycle in which staffing shortages result in augmentations, begetting more shortages and so forth.

Adequately staffing our prisons may mean bearing slightly-higher costs now, but it will help lower these same costs in the long run while keeping people safer. Whether you’re concerned about staff, inmates or both, this is an easy call. Prison is a tough enough place to work or live. Let’s not make it worse with shortsighted policies.

Lars Trautman is a senior fellow with the R Street Institute, a nonprofit group aimed at promoting limited government in Washington, D.C.