Nurses Shoved Into Guard Duty in Federal Prisons

There’s a chronic shortage of prison guards and an equal shortage of medical personnel.

By Rhonda FanningApril 29, 2016 10:45 am

Although the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. That’s not counting things like county lockups and city jails.

Federal prisons are overcrowded and in Texas, nearly 19,000 people are incarcerated in federal prisons alone. According to a report in USA Today the job of overseeing the prisoners is falling to nurses with little or no experience in security.

Kevin Johnson, who covers national law enforcement issues and the Justice Department for the USA Today, says North Carolina, Texas and Washington state are experiencing the guard shortage at major facilities, but the situation exists beyond those states – it’s happening throughout the federal system.

Johnson says he was reporting on a labor dispute within the prison system between civilian workers and medical professionals from the U.S. public health service when he received tips that medical personnel were being shifted to guard duty. Medical staffers were being asked to move inmates around maximum security prisons and handcuff prisoners.

“(That) creates a bit of a risk for that person, for inmates to know that she’s not completely confident of what she’s doing,” Johnson says.

The chronic shortage of corrections officers in the federal prison system isn’t new – it’s been going on for years, Johnson says. But at the same time there has been an equal shortage of healthcare professionals in these facilities, a 40 percent vacancy rate within the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Few politicians are taking notice. Johnson says a Florida representative, Republican David Jolly, is in conversations with union officials and members of the U.S. public health service. But there’s been what Johnson says is a surprising silence from Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy.

But tension is mounting, Johnson says. One of the sources he spoke with called it a “powder keg.”

“The danger is twofold,” Johnson says. “One is drawing inexperienced people into positions of high responsibility, moving people in and out of maximum security units. At the same time there is … a tension within the prison system that has led to unrest in some prisons in the federal system because of shortage in medical care. That’s one of the prime ways to tempt trouble in a prison system, is the failure to provide basic care.”

Prepared for web by Beth Cortez-Neavel.