On Monday, two inmates died and two more were injured after a fight at the federal prison in Beaumont. After the fight, officials for the Federal Bureau of Prisons decided to temporarily lock down all of the country’s federal prisons.
Meagan Ellsworth, public safety reporter for the Beaumonnt Enterprise, told Texas Standard about the agency’s response, and concerns from local union leaders about staffing at the facility. Listen to the interview with Ellsworth in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: Have federal prison officials given you any more explanation about why all of the country’s federal prisons were locked down after the fight at the Beaumont prison?
Meagan Ellsworth: Not directly. However, the Bureau of Prisons did make an announcement about the lockdown, and in that announcement, they did say that they were taking security measures and implementing this nationwide security lockdown to ensure security and good working order of institutions. This was impacting more than 120 federal prisons across the country.
The Beaumont Enterprise did report that The Associated Press did learn that there were some members in that fight who were involved with the MS-13 street gang. That could be a factor for this lockdown, and The Associated Press did mention that there were concerns about potential retaliation.
So prison officials, it appears, were worried that there could be violence in other prisons because of what happened in Beaumont? Retaliation for something that happened there at the Beaumont prison? Is that your sense of what they were saying?
That’s my understanding based on the events that took place, what the [Bureau of Prisons] announced and also what The Associated Press learned.
You spoke with one of the leaders of a local union that represents corrections officers there in Beaumont. What did they have to say about what happened?
I did have an opportunity to speak with the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1010 Union President Parker Strong, who did confirm that this incident was related to inmate politics. So both the National President Everett Kelley, and Parker Strong, represent this union for correctional officers. They believe that this incident that occurred on Monday is a vivid reminder of the dangers that are faced by correctional officers and employees. They have long warned that chronic understaffing is jeopardizing the lives of both inmates and workers.
So what I learned from Mr. Strong, who is a correctional officer at one of the low-security facilities on the federal complex – he said that there has been a shortage in staff.
Are there any signs that more officers might be hired in the future?
There’s been an effort by the [Bureau of Prisons]. Last February, they announced that they have been making this effort to hire more; they mentioned that they had already successfully hired about 4,000 employees in 2020, and they had these intentions to hire thousands more. However, when I spoke to Mr. [Strong], he said that while there has been this promotion, that there’s still a problem in this area with being competitive, especially with other local law-enforcement agencies.
He said that there’s actually been a staffing shortage for the past five years. A the factor in that has been past hiring freezes that have been making it difficult to be competitive. So he said for this complex here in Beaumont that he estimates that there’s about 320 correctional officers. He said that the agency has reported that they are about five staff members short. But based on their information, they’re more like 100 employees short.
What are you hearing about efforts to to address this situation?
The union leaders are actually working with members of Congress. A bill has been introduced, known as the Pay Our Correctional Officers Fairly Act. It’s not really clear what the future is for this bill, but if it’s signed into law they said it would make wages more competitive for [Bureau of Prisons] employees at [Federal Correctional Complex] Beaumont and throughout the nation, as well as address conditions to ensure better prison safety.