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Union sounds alarm over low staff levels at federal prison complex

FCC Florence.jpg
Posted at 6:40 PM, Dec 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-11 00:27:30-05

FLORENCE, Colorado — The union that represents employees at the Federal Corrections Complex in Florence is raising the alarm this week about low staffing levels. There are at least 136 job openings for corrections officers here and the facility is operating with just 59 percent of the necessary full-time staff.

John Butkovich, President of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local #1169, said the problem is only expected to get worse in the coming weeks.

"By the end of the year, we're going to be 160 correctional officers short," said Butkovich. "We own the crown of the most secure facility in the country and the most understaffed."

He said that forced overtime for corrections officers is routine at F.C.C. Florence with many employees being asked to work additional eight-hour shifts multiple days each week.

A number of non-officer employees, including medical staff and counselors, have been asked staff guard posts through a process known as augmentation.

"They are professional and they do know the job, but it's not their everyday job and some of the little things, they could miss," Butkovich said.

The strain on the staff is showing. There have been three inmate homicides since March, and six serious assaults on staff since June. Union members and their families picketed the facility back in September to call the public's attention to the issue.

Butkovich believes the staffing problems began with a federal hiring freeze four years ago. They've grown worse as the cost of living in Southern Colorado has increased and jobs at the Colorado Department of Corrections started to offer higher pay.

While the federal vaccine mandate isn't to blame, Butkovich said it didn't really help the problem either.

"Up until a couple of weeks ago, the staff didn't know if they were going to be forced to take the shot or if testing would be an option," he said. "So, some just retired without even worrying about it."

Colorado Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper sent a letter to Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal and the Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management Kiran Ahuja on Thursday asking for relief.

One request is for the implementation of a 25 percent retention bonus. The other is to have the Office of Personnel Management allow F.C.C. Florence to directly hire new employees and speed up a process that typically lasts between six months to a year.

"We respect the opinion of the Congressmen and will appropriately respond to any correspondence received," Donald Murphy, a spokesperson with the Bureau of Prisons Public Affairs Division said in reply to an email from News 5 seeking comment.

"Out of respect and deference to Members of Congress, we do not share our Congressional correspondence or elaborate on the contents of such correspondence."